Avalanche near Baker kills 1, draws renewed caution among Western’s backcountry skiers

Kjell Redal

This article originally appeared in The Western Front, Western Washington University's student newspaper, and can be found here: http://www.westernfrontonline.com/2016/01/28/avalanche-near-baker-kills-1-draws-renewed-caution-among-westerns-backcountry-skiers/

The avalanche that killed one and injured another Sunday, Jan. 24, near Mt. Baker Ski Area has caused some Western students to carefully consider their winter backcountry practices.

The avalanche victim has been identified as Mark Panthen, 36, and his body was recovered Monday, Jan. 25, a day after the slide happened, according to the Bellingham Herald.

The avalanche, which occurred on Mount Herman, a popular winter destination accessible from the Mt. Baker Ski Area’s parking lot, released on the slope’s north face at a time when the Northwest Avalanche Center had rated the regional avalanche risk level as ‘moderate,’ according to their website.

A moderate rating is the second lowest rating the Northwest Avalanche Center issues, and moderate conditions are conditions backcountry users consider more safe, said Daniel Wells, a Western senior who was ski touring on Mount Herman when the slide occurred.

The areas surrounding the ski resort are also common destinations for Western students who like to ski tour, according to Wells.

“My go-to [for skiing], which is also a go-to for everyone, is the area where the avalanche happened,” Wells said, “It’s such great access from the ski area. There’s no hike in ever.”

Wells said he and his group saw the rescue helicopter flying overhead while they were skiing, though they didn’t know it was for avalanche victims and hadn’t heard the avalanche happen.

He also said the snow felt stable where they were skiing and no one in his group was concerned about the conditions.

Benj Wadsworth, the non-profit executive director for the Northwest Avalanche Center, said this particular slide released naturally above Panthen and his partner then overtook them. The avalanche was triggered by natural snow motion on the mountain and not by the party skiing across the face, according the the Northwest Avalanche Center website.

When asked for a suggestion as to mitigating risk while ski touring, even when avalanche danger isn’t listed as high, Wadsworth said, “The avalanche forecast is just the first step in the decision-making process. People need to take terrain into account when they’re out there and make smart terrain-assessment decisions.”

This specific slide fits into a broader trend of increased avalanche fatalities across the U.S. this week. Before the incident Sunday, nine others died in the preceding 10 days in avalanches across the country.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports these accidents occurred in Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Alaska, making for the deadliest January for avalanches in the last 20 years, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.  

The unpredictability of the avalanche has made Wells reassess some of the risks involved in ski touring and other backcountry activities, he said.

“For me it will bring greater respect for the uncertainties, the unknowns in backcountry travel. But I don’t think it will fundamentally change the way I approach things,” Wells said.

Alex Halliday, a Western senior, is another student who was on top of Mount Herman when the avalanche occurred on Sunday. He has been touring in the backcountry for two and a half years and travels in the area about once a week.

Halliday said he feels comfortable skiing many different types of terrain when the avalanche forecast is listed as moderate.

He considers himself a conservative decision maker when it comes to recreation in avalanche terrain. Halliday and everyone in his group always carry their beacons, shovels and probes, tools for use in avalanche rescues, whenever they go to make turns in the backcountry.

“I never go out in avalanche terrain also,” he said.

Despite his cautious approach, though, Halliday is still paying attention to Sunday’s incident.

“It’s unfortunate the[situations] where people die are sometimes the best learning experiences. So I’m really curious for when this report comes out because I think it will be a good case study in learning more about the terrain that’s out there,” he said.

A full incident report detailing Sunday’s avalanche should be available on the Northwest Avalanche Center’s website later this week, according to the preliminary report they have already released.