Two skiers tried to tackle an unstable hillside yesterday, likely triggering the release of a 100-foot-long wave of speeding snow that killed one of them. A 28-year-old man was...

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Two skiers tried to tackle an unstable hillside yesterday, likely triggering the release of a 100-foot-long wave of speeding snow that killed one of them.

Eric Lewis, 28, was buried under the small avalanche at the Alpental Ski Area and airlifted more than two hours later to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he died. An autopsy is planned for tomorrow.

The second man was partially buried and freed himself from the snow. He found Lewis with the help of an electronic avalanche beacon and dug him out, Snoqualmie Pass Fire Department fire officials said.

At least one avalanche expert worries that this season’s loose snowpack could mean more and larger avalanches throughout the Olympic and Cascade mountains. Yesterday’s avalanche fatality was the second in the state since October. Washington usually averages two such deaths each winter.

The Alpental ski area, one of four at the Summit at Snoqualmie resort, has been closed because of a lack of snow on slopes, but some skiers still use the area for unpatrolled runs, said Summit spokesman Jon Pretty. The men were “ski touring” – a type of backcountry skiing – up the mountain with specially equipped downhill skis. They had stopped to rest around noon below the International Cliffs area when the hillside started to rumble above them, Pretty said.

Two other men skiing nearby went over to help; one stayed with Lewis and his friend while the other skied to get help, said Lt. Ron Linde of the Snoqualmie Pass Fire Department.

The accident comes in the midst of a ski season hampered by poor snow conditions throughout the region. The Summit’s four ski areas usually open in December, but only two, Summit West and Summit Central, are open so far this year, Pretty said.

“It’s been a very frustrating start to the season, and now, it’s a very saddened start to the season,” he said.

Pretty said there were signs posted that indicated the ski area was closed.

Mark Moore, director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle, was just returning from Eastern Washington, where he was conducting avalanche-education classes for members of the U.S. Forest Service, when he heard about yesterday’s fatality. Though he couldn’t speak in detail about the Alpental avalanche, Moore said, “Ninety percent of avalanche accidents and fatalities are triggered by the victims themselves.

“It’s choice, not chance – we’ve met the enemy and it’s us,” he said.



Avalanche precautions




If skiers explore
backcountry, unpatrolled areas, they should research avalanche science and know the dangerous spots where they travel. Bring shovels and electronic beacons and check the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, www.nwac.noaa.gov, for avalanche forecasts.

Because the Alpental ski area was closed, avalanche mitigation – which generally means releasing snow slides with explosives – hadn’t been done, he said. Venturing into such an area means “accepting whatever consequences happen,” said Moore, adding that the avalanche danger was high yesterday.

That danger could last through the winter, Moore said. Usually by early January, there’s between 60 and 100 inches of snow in the mountains; this year, the range is between 12 and 60 inches. For the past week or so, the region has seen small accumulations of snow, coupled with strong west winds.

The combination has created wind slabs over light, fluffy snow, making steep slopes particularly unstable.

The risk of avalanches will depend on how the winter evolves. If the area gets rain, it could initially trigger slides but would eventually help strengthen the snowpack, Moore said. Conversely, if a lot of snow gets deposited on top of the weak layers already on the slopes, “we could get large avalanches, although it will take time for them to develop,” he said.

“The weaknesses we see in the snowpack could last until spring,” Moore said.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com