Washington State suffered a series of avalanche fatalities this holiday weekend. Four avalanche deaths occurred Sunday in backcountry areas near Stevens Pass and Alpental.
Heavy snowfall across the Cascade Mountains dropped around three feet of snow in three days. The bulk of the storm unleashed its fury Saturday. In 24 hours, it piled up 19 inches at Stevens Pass and 22 inches at Alpental, one of the ski areas of The Summit at Snoqualmie.
The fatalities occurred when skiers triggered slab avalanches within an hour of each other. Both avalanches were in the backcountry near Stevens Pass and Alpental, not inbounds.
The Stevens Pass avalanche swept 1,500 feet down the Tunnel Creek Canyon, according to multiple news reports. Other reports from ESPN and Powder Magazine, who both had staff members in the avalanche, estimate the avalanche careened between 2,000-3,000 feet. Both reports attributed the avalanche as skier-triggered.
Most news sources reported that twelve skiers were involved in the avalanche. ESPN said that 13 skiers, a combination of locals and visiting pros, were involved.
Three male skiers between 30-45 years old were killed. They were local Stevens Pass skiers who had backcountry experience and avalanche gear. ESPN has identified the skiers as Freeskiing World Tour head judge Jim Jack, Stevens Pass Director of Marketing Chris Rudolph, and skier John Brenan.
Pro skier Elyse Saugstad who was swept away in the avalanche deployed an airbag and survived. You can read more details of her account here.
Skiers can access the Tunnel Creek backcountry from Stevens Pass Ski Area. The most common entry point is via the Seventh Heaven chair that climbs to the ridge of Cowboy Mountain.
Near Alpental, less than an hour earlier, three snowboarders were riding in the backcountry on Sunday when an avalanche swept one over a 500-foot cliff. The man was dropping down a chute on Denny Mountain when he triggered the avalanche.
For Sunday, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center forecasted high avalanche danger above 5,000 feet, where travel was not recommended. For slopes below 5,000 feet, the avalanche danger was rated considerable, meaning that human-triggered avalanches were likely. The forecast analysis included a statement that ski patrols from Mt. Baker, Stevens Pass, and Alpental were reporting natural and wind slab avalanches.
Sunday’s fatalities bring the U.S. avalanche deaths for the season to 17. Of those 17, nine were skiers and four were snowboarders. Two were inbounds at resorts, the remainder were out of bounds. Check the statistics here.