Tuesday, January 29, 2008

2008 - Off to a snowy start

Near record amounts of snow fell at Paradise in December and early January. The weather station there recorded over 360 inches (over 30 feet) of the white stuff so far this fall and winter. At that rate, the mountain is on track to break the previous snowfall record (93 feet in 1972)... The breakneck pace of snowfall has blanketed the entire Cascade range and has also caused a significant amount of avalanche distress and accidents. The thick unstable snowpack brought a series of severe avalanche cycles that have claimed nine lives in the region. Almost another record, yet very grim, for avalanche fatalities.

At Paradise on Mount Rainier, a snowshoer was caught in a snow-slide on December 18th. It took 3 and 1/2 days to find 22 year old Kirk Reiser. Though the accident occurred within 3/4 miles of the parking lot, a tremendous amount of continued snowfall made the recovery hazardous and arduous. To find him, we called upon Mountain Rescue and Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol to help. They showed up with many rescuers, search dogs and bombs (to mitigate the hazard). Left: Crystal Mountain Ski Patroller Chris Morin tossing a bomb, photo by Stefan Lofgren.

It's been over 20 years since someone has been caught and killed in a "winter" related avalanche on the Paradise side of the mountain. Climbers have certainly been caught, but those incidents happened in the spring and fall at higher elevations. The last four avalanche fatalities were in June (3) and October (1), not your traditional "avalanche season." Left: Mountain Rescue volunteers working a probe-line, photo by Stefan Lofgren.

Anyone who leaves the parking lot for a day of fun in the snow should definitely pay attention and adhere to the avalanche forecast. You'll also need to know how to evaluate the hazard and make route finding decisions that avoid hazardous areas. Another key is to carry the necessary backcountry rescue equipment (a beacon, a shovel, and a probe per person) and know how to use them efficiently during an emergency. Remember, rescue equipment is a last resort, avoiding an accident is the goal. Perhaps the best advice is to take a class and learn about snow safety. If you haven't done so, check out some of the avalanche courses offered in the area. If it's been a few years since you've had a course, take an update/refresher. A good place to start is the Level 1 AIARE or the Recreational Level 1 course from the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Over the last week, we've enjoyed mostly clear and cold weather (as attested by Chris Olson's image to the left). This allowed 3 climbers an opportunity to summit via the Gibraltar Ledges route on Jan 23rd!! During that weather window, numerous snowshoers and skiers made their way to Camp Muir. Most were reporting firm, hard snow, no one else summited (that we know of)... That said, the snow has again started to fall in Longmire and at Paradise (another 2 feet reported). Once again, things are very soft and hazardous. As a safety heads up: the emergency public radio at Camp Muir is not working (more later on when it gets fixed). As for the snow/ski conditions, check out our ski reports from Lead Climbing Ranger Chris Olson. As always, I appreciate any field reports route updates, if you send them, we'll share them...

And speaking of updates, we have a new writer on the website that you'll be meeting later this week. But to give you a quick heads up, get ready for famed writer and blogger: Rebecca Agiewich. Rebecca is a Rainier enthusiast, skier, and for the benefit of this website, a writer. She has signed on to help me with route reports and other updates so that YOU wont have to wait (sometimes 8 weeks) for the local scoop on Rainier traffic and events as I wade through NPS policy and budgets... Look for her pithy and fun posts to come. She'll spin her own Rainier press and provide added entertainment and information.

Above image is of Park Ranger Stefan Lofgren assessing the snowpack, by Mike Gauthier.