At ice caves, Forest Service struggles to balance risk, tourism

The Big Four Ice Caves in Washington are devoid of visitors Tuesday, as crews worked to  recover the body of a 34-year-old woman buried when rock and ice fell at the back of the cave.
The Big Four Ice Caves in Washington are devoid of visitors Tuesday, as crews worked to recover the body of a 34-year-old woman buried when rock and ice fell at the back of the cave. The Everett Herald

The U.S. Forest Service once considered using explosives to demolish the naturally forming Big Four Ice Caves every spring to prevent people from being hurt or killed at the popular recreation area.

However, that proposal was rejected because, “It would destroy the main reason people go back to the area,” according to a 1996 public-safety report on the caves compiled by the Forest Service.

“As a result that action would probably not be accepted by the public,” wrote Adrienne Hall, who was Darrington district ranger for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest at the time.

Two years later, in 1998, a woman died when part of the main cave fell on her. In 2010, an 11-year-old girl was crushed by a car-sized boulder of ice while she posed outside the caves for a photograph.

And on Monday, a 34-year-old woman was killed when tons of ice and rock fell from the ceiling deep inside the cave and landed on a group of hikers who had ignored numerous warning signs. Five others were hurt, including two men who suffered serious injuries, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

Unusually warm weather has made conditions so unstable within the caves that it took until Tuesday afternoon to recover the woman’s body, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton.

“Anybody who steps into it is at risk,” Ireton said of the cave.

Search-and-rescue workers and a state avalanche technician used small explosives to dislodge debris from within the caves to recover the body, the sheriff’s office said. The victim was then hoisted out by helicopter.

Her name has not been released.

According to the 1996 public-safety assessment and other Forest Service documents, the agency for decades has struggled to balance the popularity of the ice caves with the very real dangers they pose.

The documents were part of a lawsuit filed by the family of 11-year-old Grace Tam, who was killed on July 31, 2010. The family alleged the Forest Service failed to adequately warn visitors of the dangers.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding the Forest Service had not been negligent.

Grace’s father, John Tam, said in an email Tuesday that he is grief-stricken for the victims and their families.

“I still do not understand the USFS for not implementing any safety measure there yet inviting and baiting the public to go there,” he wrote.

Since his daughter’s death, Tam has argued for barriers to be erected around the caves and for warning signs to be more noticeable. He also says the ice caves should not be included on lists of family day trips.

The Forest Service’s website warns, “The caves are exceptionally dangerous to enter or climb on. Tons of ice from the cave ceilings come crashing down every year.”

Rangers have considered fencing off the cave entrance or closing the caves altogether.

Hall, who still works for the Forest Service as the Verlot Ranger Station manager, said Tuesday that, “We just don’t have the personnel to stop people from going in there.”

The agency concluded in 1996 that the best tactic is the one that’s been in place since the caves became a tourist attraction in the early 1900s: “Inform and educate the people of the hazards of the area and let them make their own choices.”

That plan, officials concluded, “will be the easiest to administer and the most likely to succeed.”

As a result, anyone visiting the caves walks past an informational kiosk and several large signs warning that the caves and steep slopes above them are dangerous.

“People have been killed and injured in and on the ice caves — be safe, not sorry!” one sign warns. Other signs warn that the caves “will collapse.”

Hikers who take the easy, one-mile trail are met with a low brick wall — the end of the official trail — and a final warning sign, placed there by the family of Grace Tam.

“It’s kind of frustrating for me and I know it is for the Tam family to go back there and see people walking past the sign,” Hall said during a news conference on Tuesday.

Many visitors step over the wall into an area the Forest Service considers a no- man’s land, and they join a spiderweb of well-worn trails leading to the caves made by thousands of other hikers who have walked past the signs.

This year, officials say the danger posed by the caves has been particularly high due to the unusually warm weather. The instability found in the ice in June usually is not seen until August, said Phyllis Reed, the acting Forest Service district ranger.

The Forest Service said Wednesday morning access to the ice caves will remain closed indefinitely.

“We don’t have a date for (re-opening) at this time,” said Aleta Eng, a spokeswoman for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “At this time, management wants to assess the caves for safety. There has not been a decision as yet as to when to reopen them.”

Hall, the author of the public-safety report, said that usually two Forest Service field officers are at the site to educate people. The officers were there Sunday, but she wasn’t sure if they were at the caves on Monday.

Even if they were, the incident occurred so late, around 5:30 p.m., that they would have been on their way back to the station, she said.