‘Considerable’ more dangerous than you think, avalanche expert says

December 24, 2005

It’s delicate, clean and when the sun’s out, it sparkles.

And it can kill you in a variety of ways. By its brutal coldness. Its weight. Its speed. Or its tendency to leech the last breath of oxygen from your panicking lungs.

Snow, like a James Bond villain, is often most lethal when it’s most beautiful.

That is within 48 hours of a snowstorm.

But it’s also very lethal in times like these, Mount Rainier’s lead climbing ranger Glenn Kessler told a packed Alpinees Hut Dec. 8.

“(Avalanches are more likely) when the snow experiences rapid changes in the weather, like wind, temperature, snow and rain,” he said.

In the last week, the Cascades’ snow pack has adjusted from a few weeks of consistent, cold and dry weather to a week of warmth and moisture.

This, according to the Northwest Avalanche Control’s Thursday forecast for the Mount Hood area, has produced areas of wet and weak crust below 7,000 feet, “where the possibility of mainly small, wet, loose or isolated wet slab slides is maintaining a moderate danger.”

The recent rain and wet snow, the forecast says, has lubricated bonds between snow layers.

And this “moderate” danger, says Kessler, describes the conditions in which 26 percent of all avalanche victims are killed.

“Most people (45 percent) are injured or killed when the avalanche forecast is ‘considerable,’” Kessler said.

Also, Kessler told the Alpinees, small avalanches kill more people than big ones do.

“For every one person killed in one, there’s probably four or five caught in them,” he said.

The winter of 2005-2006 is already creating the layers for an active avalanche season.

Within three days of Mount Baker ski area’s opening day, two separate avalanches had already consumed two snowboarders.

The avalanche that had buried backcountry snowboarder Matt Bowen on Nov. 5 had knocked him unconscious and had buried him five feet in the snow.

Three days later, two skiers at Mount Baker rescued a snowboarder after an avalanche had buried him under eight feet of snow for 10 minutes.

Both avalanches were soft slab slides, according to the Mt. Baker Ski Patrol.

Both victims survived.

And in both instances, the victims and rescuers were using transceivers and shovels in the backcountry.

In both cases, the victim or a person in the victim’s party triggered the avalanche.

“The typical avalanche victim is 24 to 37 years old, is advanced or is an expert,” Kessler said. “His skill has outgrown his knowledge of snow. They or a person in their party sets them off 90 percent of the time.”

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