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April 14, 2013 at 10:07 AM

Woman dug from avalanche dies; search suspended for missing hiker

Won Shin, 56, of Mukilteo, was among the four who made it off the mountain first on Saturday. He said that when the avalanche hit, he suddenly saw snow all around him. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Won Shin, 56, of Mukilteo, was among the four who made it off the mountain first on Saturday. He said that when the avalanche hit, he suddenly saw snow all around him. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

A female snowshoer died nearly nine hours after being buried in an avalanche on Red Mountain yesterday, and rescuers have indefinitely suspended a search for a 60-year-old male hiker, who was buried in an avalanche on Granite Mountain, according to the King County Sheriff’s Office.

The first avalanche took place at noon on Granite Mountain, near Interstate 90’s Exit 47. The second hit a half-hour later on Red Mountain, a few miles east near the Alpental ski area on Snoqualmie Pass.

The 60-year-old man, whom sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Katie Larson described as “a very experienced hiker,” was with two other men, all from South King County, when the avalanche hit, carrying them 1,279 feet at a top speed of 53 mph “in less than a minute.” That level of detail was available because at least one snowshoer was outfitted with GPS.

Two injured men, in their 30s, emerged from the snow, but their companion did not, Larson said.

About 50 rescuers with dog teams searched for the man. But they battled “horrible” conditions, Larson said, and wound up suspending the search sometime around 8 p.m.

Overnight, the mountain got another “big dump of snow,” making the conditions too dangerous to send searchers back in, she said.

“Until conditions improve, we’ve suspended the search indefinitely,” Larson said.

At the Red Mountain site, matters remained confusing late yesterday, with officials unsure whether one or possibly more snowshoers remained buried in the snow.

The confusion came in part from a language barrier between search-and-rescue officials and a group of a dozen snowshoers who had been caught in the avalanche. The group of 12 was split up by the avalanche, with four making it off the mountain on their own by 5 p.m.

A woman snowshoeing with her dog near that group of 12 snowshoers was buried when the avalanche struck. The remaining eight snowshoers, who were at about 4,800 feet, realized the woman was missing when the dog, alone, came up to them afterward.

Members of the group located the woman, face down under about 5 feet of snow, about 45 minutes after the avalanche hit, Larson said.

Volunteers at a command post off Exit 52 along Interstate 90 on Saturday prepare to join in the rescue operation to look for at least one missing snowshoer. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Volunteers at a command post off Exit 52 along Interstate 90 on Saturday prepare to join in the rescue operation to look for at least one missing snowshoer. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“She had a pulse at the time,” and the snowshoers did their best to keep her warm while they waited 2 1/2 hours for rescuers to hike into their location, she said. It took another six hours to get the woman out on a sled, and after she was brought down from the mountain, medics pronounced her dead at the scene sometime around midnight, according to Larson.

In all, more than 100 members of Search and Rescue teams from Seattle, Everett, Pierce County and Yakima participated in searches at the two avalanche scenes. “We had a lot of help,” she said.

Won Shin, 56, of Mukilteo, was among the four who made it off Red Mountain first. He said that when the avalanche hit, he suddenly saw snow all around him.

“The only thing I thought about was just, ‘Get out of here,’ ” he said. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

He said those in his group of four were lucky because they were close to trees that broke the avalanche’s impact.

The 12 friends are experienced snowshoers who make it into the mountains about every week, he said.

The two hikers who were with the missing man on Granite Mountain suffered non-life-threatening shoulder and hamstring injuries, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The last avalanche fatalities occurred in February 2012 when four were killed at Stevens Pass and near the Summit at Snoqualmie, Larson said.

She said avalanches can be common this time of year.

“Whenever you have warm weather and then cold weather and snow, it can be bad,” she said.

Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute, which offers avalanche consulting and safety training, said storm conditions had been expected in the mountains this weekend.

“This was not a freak spring storm that comes out of nowhere,” said Baugher, who is also Ski Patrol director at Crystal Mountain Resort. “It’s a well-forecasted storm. It was all available to look at.”

He said the forecast for avalanches at Snoqualmie was “high” yesterday.

Both his ski patrol at Crystal Mountain and its counterpart at the Snoqualmie Pass ski resort did routine avalanche control yesterday morning. They used small explosives and “ski cutting” to release slabs of snow that might slide and create an avalanche.

The conditions resulted from lots of new snow, enhanced at Snoqualmie Pass by the Puget Sound convergence-zone weather pattern.

“Because of the cold temperatures, the snow underneath is relatively well frozen and stable,” Baugher said. “But there’s a poor bond between the new snow coming down and old snow, which is very hard and slippery. That produces soft slabs of very sensitive snow.”

He said, “They have definitely got high hazards at Snoqualmie. It’s set up for human-triggered avalanches.” In particular, “Granite Mountain has a history of avalanches, and they often happen later in the season,” Baugher said.

“A lot of people plan by the calendar. Late in the season, people expect it to be spring and start planning outings they might not do in the winter,” Baugher said. “But this is true winter conditions. It’s just occurring in the spring.”

In the 15 years before this winter, there were 46 avalanche fatalities in the Northwest, according to statistics compiled by the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. Most occurred in December through February, with only four deaths in April.

This winter, the center recorded two previous avalanche accidents in the Pacific Northwest. In the first, last November, some snowmobiles were buried but no one was hurt. In December, at Crystal Mountain, three skiers were caught in an avalanche, but all escaped serious injury.

 

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