Western avalanches claim 11 lives

MAZAMA -- A Colville man who died in an avalanche north of Mazama wasn't the only backcountry recreationist caught unaware last weekend.

It was a bad weekend for avalanches around the Western U.S. and Canada, said Kenny Kramer, avalanche meteorologist for the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle. Avalanches caused one fatality in Wyoming, two in Colorado, and eight in southeast British Columbia.

Kramer received other reports last week of "near misses" from skiers and a ski guide west of Mazama who were skiing near the North Cascades Highway, which is closed for the season.

Two avalanches near Washington Pass apparently claimed some equipment from three skiers, he said.

"This new snow has been denser, and the snow is so weak underneath, it's still an upside-down snowpack," Kramer said, adding, "It's going to get worse before it gets better."

Sunday's fatality in the Harts Pass area near Mazama was Washington state's first avalanche death this winter, he said.

Joshua S. Peters, 24, was wearing a beacon, and three other snowmobilers located and dug him out within 15 minutes but could not revive him, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said.

Rogers said there was no indication Peters was high marking -- a snowmobiling term describing the practice of seeing how high up a slope one can climb on a snowmobile.

Even without high marking, snowmobilers often trigger avalanches because the newer machines allow them to go almost anywhere, including across unstable slopes, Kramer said.

"They're now virtually unlimited as to where they can go, and what kind of snow they can go in," he said.

Older machines were limited by snow depth and terrain, he said.

John Newcom, U.S. Forest Service ranger for the Methow Valley Ranger District, said backcountry skiers used to be more likely to suffer fatal consequences of an avalanche, but in recent years snowmobilers have topped the list of victims.

He said anyone using the backcountry in winter should check avalanche conditions before heading out, and become familiar with the warning signs. "It only takes a few minutes to call, and it might give you some information that will save your life," he said.

According to Avalanche Center statistics, 36 people died in avalanches in the United States last year, 12 of them snowmobilers.

"It's a combination of things. People are using the backcountry more, and we've had new user groups that have come along over the past decade and a half that weren't educated" about avalanche danger, Kramer said.