Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: NWAC
Place: Above Mountain Loop Highway near Mount Pilchuck
Summary: 3 hikers caught, 2 partially buried, 1 completely buried and killed
Avalanche kills girl near Mt. Pilchuck
Unstable snowpack is linked to least 9 deaths this season
By TOM PAULSON
The body of a teenage girl was found Friday after an avalanche above the Mountain Loop Highway near Mount Pilchuck in Snohomish County -- the latest in what is shaping up to be the deadliest season for avalanches in modern history.
A group of youths aged 12 to 16 and an adult were hiking near Lake 22, a popular trail off the Mountain Loop Highway east of Granite Falls, when the avalanche hit Friday afternoon, said spokeswoman Rebecca Hover with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office.
Hover said the avalanche trapped three children. Two managed to escape but the girl, believed to be about 13 and from Mukilteo, was reported missing. Her body was found Friday night.
It was the ninth confirmed or presumed death resulting from avalanches in the region this season.
"This is certainly the worst (season) since we began doing avalanche forecasts in 1975," said Mark Moore, director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.
"And we're only a month into the season," said Kenny Kramer, an avalanche forecaster and colleague of Moore's at the center.
On Friday, Moore's team alerted backcountry travelers to increasing risks in the mountains because of the unstable snowpack, the result of a crust layer created by a warm spell early last year.
Six to 12 feet of snow -- some of it packed into slabs by several high-wind episodes -- sits on top of this crust, poorly anchored and ready to slip, Moore said.
He said his organization has seen slides in some areas with crown fractures -- the wall of snow left behind after a slab breaks off -- more than 10 feet high.
"Our snowpack usually allows for mistakes," Moore said. "This snowpack isn't allowing for any mistakes.
"One mistake and you're dead."
Washington state's deadliest avalanche seasons were in 1910 and 1981.
In 1910, a snow slide struck a train just east of Stevens Pass, killing 96 passengers and leading to the nation's worst avalanche death toll. In 1981, an avalanche on Mount Rainier killed 11 climbers.
But the totals tend to disguise what is happened already this season, Moore said.
There have never been so many deaths from so many different avalanches, he said. This season is shaping up to be the worst, Moore said, unless people become more aware of the risk.
"We've had a lot of people making poor decisions about when and where they go," he said, adding that being experienced as a skier, hiker or snowmobiler doesn't protect one.
Anyone going into the backcountry must be skilled at reducing risks, Moore said.
The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center regularly issues reports and warnings.
This year's snowpack could stabilize with a big rain, causing snow layers and weak points in the snow to consolidate, Moore said. But the weakening crust is deep enough that the risk could persist well into spring, he said.
The most recent confirmed deaths before Friday's were those of two people who died after an avalanche struck a party of snowmobilers Tuesday north of Mount Baker.