Forest Service will look at ways to keep hikers out of the deadly caves.
VERLOT, Snohomish County — The trail leading to the Big Four Ice Caves will likely reopen next year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. But the agency is planning to bring together trail builders, landscape architects and social scientists to look for ways to keep hikers out of the deadly caves.
The trail has been closed since July 6, when rock and ice fell and killed 34-year-old Annalisa Santana, of California. Five other people were injured, including her brother, a Lynnwood resident who died of his injuries in October.
The snow and ice formation about 70 miles northeast of Seattle is the most popular hiking attracting in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, attracting thousands of visitors each year.
But the caves can be dangerous, and there have been three deaths from collapsing ice in the past five years.
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“We are still trying to sort out how we proceed forward,” said Peter Forbes, district ranger for the national forest’s half-million acre Darrington Ranger District. “I’m hoping we can open it by next summer.”
Researchers and trail experts are expected to hike the trail and make suggestions first.
“The landscape up there would allow us some relocation of the trail,” explained Forbes. “If we identify something we can do, we have to figure out how are we going to fund it.”
This year was particularly dangerous for ice-cave visitors. The caves are at the bottom of Big Four Mountain and form from compressed, melting avalanche debris. Because 2015 saw limited snowpack and hot, dry weather, sections of the caves were collapsing by May.
After closing the trail in July, the Forest Service asked for feedback about how to continue. Most of the more than 180 responses asked that the trail remain open.
There are also efforts under way to improve emergency response times to the caves, where there is no cellphone reception. The trail is 1.1 miles long and it’s another 14.5 miles to telephone service at the Verlot ranger station.
The Forest Service is planning on installing a landline telephone at Camp Silverton, closer to the ice caves, so visitors don’t have to travel quite as far to make 911 calls.