An avalanche on Colchuck Peak near Leavenworth, Chelan County, killed three climbers Sunday, marking the deadliest snowslide in the U.S. this winter and Washington’s worst such incident in years.
A group of six people were climbing a couloir on the peak — which stands near its namesake lake, a popular Enchantments hiking destination — when the lead climber triggered the avalanche, said Chelan County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Reinfeld. A slab broke free and caught four climbers, who slid around 500 feet down the narrow gully.
Authorities suspect two of them died immediately from the trauma of the avalanche and another died soon after. The fourth person caught in the slide suffered ankle and knee injuries.
The victims are a 53-year-old man from Connecticut, a 60-year-old woman from New York and a 66-year-old man from New Jersey. A 56-year-old man from New York survived the slide.
The New York man and two other climbers who weren’t caught in the avalanche were able to hike down around 1,000 feet to their base camp near Colchuck Lake, Reinfeld said. A seventh member of the group, who had stayed at camp instead of attempting the climb, hiked out 5 miles in deep snow and contacted authorities for help around 8 a.m. Monday.
Reinfeld said the party, from a New York climbing club, intended to climb Colchuck Peak. The climbers did not have formal avalanche training, according to Reinfeld.
Mountain rescue volunteers hiked the remaining three people out of Colchuck Lake around 6:30 p.m. Monday. The survivor of the avalanche was able to walk out on his own despite his injuries, Reinfeld said.
Around an hour after the initial avalanche, three more avalanches came down the couloir, potentially burying two of those killed, he said. Authorities know a rough location of one of the bodies.
Conditions were too hazardous Tuesday to survey the scene from the air or send crews. But authorities plan to send an initial crew with staff from the Northwest Avalanche Center to assess the scene Wednesday morning, and they hope to use air resources Thursday or Friday when winds calm and the sky clears.
Until the scene is deemed safe and the weather improves, there are no plans to recover the bodies, Reinfeld said.
The area is hazardous with lots of terrain that could be considered risky for a triggered or natural avalanche, said Mark Gunlogson, owner of Mountain Madness, a mountaineering company based in Seattle.
“A lot of things probably lined up where they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
He cautioned that anyone planning a trip to Colchuck Peak or nearby sites use resources like the Northwest Avalanche Center and training on what to do if there is an avalanche. Backcountry travelers should also be willing to adjust plans based on the forecast and conditions they encounter.
“Maybe Colchuck Peak doesn’t present itself as an option,” Gunlogson said. “If that’s the case, maybe you end up snowshoeing in the trees, and you stay safe.”
The avalanche center had predicted moderate danger above and near tree line Sunday for the zone that includes Colchuck Peak, along with low danger below tree line.
“Expect increasing danger on Sunday as a multi-day storm begins to affect the area,” the center said in its forecast. “Wind slabs should grow in size at upper elevations near the crest, and could be reactive on a recently buried weak snow or a slick crust. Take a step back in your terrain selection, identifying large steep slopes in the wind zone that hold questionable stability.”
Forecast director Dennis D’Amico said the center was informed of the news Monday morning.
“We are still gathering information, working with law enforcement and search and rescue to try to piece this story together,” he said the next morning.
The deaths are the first resulting from a Washington avalanche this winter, according to the avalanche center.
The avalanche also appears to be the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2020-21 season, when four people were killed in an avalanche in Utah’s backcountry, according to a database that tracks avalanche accidents. That season, three climbers were killed in an Alaska avalanche, and three died in a Colorado avalanche.
Washington hasn’t had a fatal avalanche involving more than two people in years. In 2014, two guides and four clients died on Mount Rainier after falling more than 3,000 feet; avalanche experts say they likely were swept down by an avalanche. Three people were killed in 2012 at the out-of-bounds Tunnel Creek area near Stevens Pass Ski Area.
The 2021-22 season in Washington saw one fatal avalanche when an Issaquah man died after he was buried with five other backcountry skiers in the Silver Basin area of Crystal Mountain.
The area of Colchuck Peak saw a death in December 2015, when a Portland man disappeared after telling friends he was planning to climb the mountain. His body was found nearly a year later on a steep slope leading to the peak.