Most winters, Washington sees two or three avalanche-related deaths. But last weekend, three died in one day – two near Snoqualmie Pass and a third near Stampede Pass.
“To have three fatalities in a single day is close to the average that we experience in a whole season,” said Northwest Avalanche Center executive director Scott Schell. “It was definitely a tragic, tragic day.”
The conditions that cause avalanches, typically substantial amounts of fresh snow on open slopes of 20 degrees or more, are fairly predictable.
But they can be triggered by any number of events that people are powerless to prevent, including piles of snow falling off a tree or an animal running across an open area, said former National Mountain Rescue Association president Lynn Buchanan.
He should know. He survived an avalanche in 1978 in northern Canada.
“It’s really something when you’re tumbling down a mountain and know people don’t usually survive that,” he said, recalling the incident. “Going down the mountain end over end, buried in a mass of snow, all you can do is think about all the other people’s bodies you dug out and not knowing if you’re going to make it out or not.”
The avalanche stopped on a flat area, which allowed three the members of the group to get out of the snow and dig out the other three.
Unfortunately, most of the rescues for avalanches aren’t called rescues. They’re called recoveries. You’re picking up bodies because in an avalanche you die in a matter of minutes and no mountain rescue can get there in time.
Craig Southwell, mountain rescue member of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office.
Last weekend’s deaths on Snoqualmie and Stampede passes were the first avalanche deaths in the state this winter. In recent years, Washington avalanche deaths have ranged from none to as many as nine. The danger last weekend resulted from weak layers of snow with fresh snow atop.
Mere hours before the three deaths last Sunday, the Northwest Avalanche Center issued a warning.
It warned backcountry travelers to avoid any avalanche terrain – open, snowy slopes steeper than 20 degrees.
The avalanches that killed the three were caused by new snow that fell on top of weaker layers and created a slab, which eventually broke and sent the snow cascading the mountains.
On Stampede Pass, an avalanche struck a party of five snowmobilers who had stopped for lunch. The slide completely buried 32-year-old Joseph Simenstad, his wife, Sabeo Simenstad, 30, and Josh Winter, 24, of Snohomish. Two other men were partially buried. Joseph Simenstad suffered extensive injuries and died at the scene. Winter was recovered unconscious, but was revived. Sabeo Simenstad suffered minor injuries.
Roughly 8 miles to the north near Snoqualmie Pass, Niko Suokko, 18, and Declan Ervin, 17, both of Bellevue, were snowshoeing when they were struck by an avalanche. They both died from asphyxiation due to snow entrapment.
The two were wearing avalanche beacons, which emit a signal for rescue to find them. But no one was there to detect the signals.
Schell and other experts agree: the correct equipment is important, but the best thing someone can do before going out into the backcountry is to check the Northwest Avalanche Center’s forecast and stay away if danger is high.
“Unfortunately, most of the rescues for avalanches aren’t called rescues. They’re called recoveries,” said Yakima County Sheriff’s mountain rescue member Craig Southwell. “You’re picking up bodies because in an avalanche you die in a matter of minutes and no mountain rescue can get there in time.”
If danger is low enough to allow backcountry travel, Schell recommends bringing an avalanche beacon, probe and a shovel.
Southwell suggested investing in an inflatable pack, which brings people closer to the surface in the event of an avalanche.
“That gear is the equipment to help you once you’ve made a mistake. Your primary lifeline is all that equipment and your ability to use it,” Schell said. “But once you’re caught in an avalanche, a lot is left up to luck.”
The most important tool will always be the avalanche forecast, which Schell’s center puts out at least once a day. And it’s vital to heed those warnings.
“There’s always the pull of wanting to be out in the backcountry, and so sometimes people don’t stop to consider the risk,” Southwell said. “If you’re not spending at least a half an hour to plan, you’re putting yourself at unnecessary risk.
“And if NWAC says the danger is considerable, that should be the end of your trip.”