The state of Washington averages five avalanche deaths every two years.
This year, there have been five avalanche deaths here just in the past week.
Those recent avalanches claimed the lives of snowmobilers and snowshoers who were out adventuring in the central Cascade Mountains, in both King and Kittitas counties, where heavy snow, rain and wide temperature swings have made for unstable snows conditions.
The five people who died this past week all were involved in activities known to cause avalanches in the past.
Two teenagers from Bellevue, boys ages 17 and 18, were buried in an avalanche while snowshoeing in the backcountry near the Alepental-Snow Lake area, said King County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ryan Abbott. The pair vanished Feb. 25 amid heavy snowfall in an area with a high avalanche danger. Both had avalanche beacons and appeared to be properly equipped. They were identified as Niko Suokko, 18, and Declan Ervin, 17.
The same day, in the backcountry near Stampede Pass in Kittitas County, a group of five snowmobilers had stopped to eat lunch beneath a slope when a ridge above them let go, burying three of them totally and partially burying the other two. Joseph Simenstad, 32, from Issaquah, died from his injuries.
Then, on Saturday, two snowmobilers died and two others were injured when an avalanche swept down a slope near Esmeralda Peak in Kittitas County.
The Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office said crews responded to an avalanche report to the area before noon Saturday and found the four victims with the help of other snowmobilers in the area.
Deputies said 27-year-old Zach Roundtree, of Bonney Lake, and 41-year-old James Larson, of Buckley, were killed in the avalanche. Larson was a police officer from Bonney Lake, according to officials. Two other men were injured in snowslide, the sheriff said.
The Northwest Avalanche Center said that the avalanche danger up and down the Cascade range remains high.
Kittitas County Undersheriff Clay Myers, whose deputies have recovered three bodies in seven days, questioned whether the danger justifies the risks. The forecasts say the threat is at a level where human-triggered avalanches are considered “likely.”
People who insist on trekking into the backcountry need to be aware of the risks, he said.
“Just Google ‘Avalanche Danger,’” Myers said in a news release. That search will should lead to the Northwest Avalanche Center website, whose forecasters have nothing but dire news right now.
“You may be able to trigger Persistent Slab avalanches in the upper snowpack on sun-exposed slopes (generally southerly aspects) greater than 35 degrees,” the center says. “To reduce your risk of being caught, avoid steep, open, sunny slopes, and large avalanche paths.”
“Despite the continued slow stabilizing trend, specific terrain still has the potential to produce large and destructive avalanches,” the avalanche center said in a forecast Saturday night for the western slopes and both Stevens and Snoqualmie passes. The danger was forecast to continue through at least Monday.
About 90 percent of fatal avalanches are triggered by humans, according to the National Weather Service. They usually occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees. Unstable snow, signs of recent avalanches, heavy recent precipitation, windblown snow and significant warming are all red flags for heightened avalanche risk. A “whumping” sound is also a telltale sign.
Mountaineers are encouraged to carry a transreceiver so they can be found if covered by snow, a shovel to dig other people out and a probe to locate others covered in snow.
The snowpack across the state is above normal, according to the National Weather Service.
Avalanche deaths remain infrequent. There were 12 across the country this past year, including four in Washington state, according to figures compiled by the Northwest Avalanche Center. Going back three decades, the state averages 2.6 avalanche deaths each year.
Washington was also home to the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history, which happened 108 years ago this week.
The “white horror,” as the Times called it, knocked two trains off the track and killed 96 people just west of Stevens Pass.