What started out as a clear beautiful morning in Seattle winter turned into a life lesson which I will remember for a long time – I witnessed an avalanche and I was just a stone’s throw from it. This was during a meetup hike. I wanted to give this hike a try since it was in my bucket list since long and to be honest, the avalanche conditions kind of intrigued me. Even though I had reservations to go, I committed since I trusted the meetup organizer’s judgement.
I got up early in the morning which is usual during hike days and the sky looked pretty clear from my bedroom window. The forecast was partly cloudy for the day, but there was very less traces of cloud when I started out which brought Mt Rainier and the surroundings out in all its glory. Except for the mist near the Eastgate Park and Ride, we had clear sky for most of the day. The road to the trailhead after the exit from I-90 was icy and closed. My shotgun passenger gave me tips to maneuver the car safely out of slippery ice and I thought I learnt something new today. But little did I know that it was just the beginning. The pointy McClellan butte looked stunning in the bright sunlight and I was happy that the weather was good and not like the day when we attempted P3 – which is right across it.
But I was aware of the accidents on good bright days during last month due to Sun brining the ice melts and increasing avalanche conditions. For the hike, the organizer was adamant about few things like him leading and being swift and given the conditions, he was rightful. We started on with the microspikes and then onto snowshoes. The views came in late with beautiful vista of surrounding snow covered mountains.
The terrain was really steep but except few snow bombarding from tree branches above us, we made it safely to avalanche chute areas.
Avalanche and Rescue attempt
We were over 3 miles into the hike and the organizer instructed us to cross in small numbers at the places where there were no trees. We safely crossed the initial two chutes. Then we stopped hiking suddenly and I could see why. I was around 10 meters away still in tree cover from what looked like a river of snow. It was wider than 20 meters and at an angle of 30+ degrees and moving down swiftly and continued for at-least half a minute. The avalanche had indeed happened and was in our way now. A fellow hiker recorded this:
Better quality: https://www.instagram.com/p/Bf4PY5RhxVI/
Apparently, there were 2 people in-front of us and the organizer noticed that their tracks had disappeared from the chute. So he crossed the chute on the the debris to look for the tracks. He then instructed us all to cross one at a time while he kept a watch. I held my heart, crossed and I looked up to see why the avalanche was obvious in that area. I could see all the way to the summit and near vertical cliffs facing the Sun. It was a clear path for the slabs of ice to collapse and flow down. Well, I assume the path was made by the falling snow over the years.
I was still looking up and I called out immediately after I saw more ice falling which could trigger another avalanche. I still remember that sight. It was called ‘Release’ and we kept calling out if ever we found ice falling above us. I came up a bit and then I saw another avalanche and I could record clearly this time in the following video.
If you observed the video, on a closer look you can see how destructive mother nature can be but in the far, she looks soothing and beautiful. We had left the plans of summit attempt and began looking for the hikers ahead of us. We couldn’t find them or the tracks, so we got the beacons out to check for any signals. One beacon picked up a signal and that started a search to find the possibly buried people. Some did a circle search for the tracks and some went on the debris with the beacons and probes. I saw almost a 2 meter probe go into the snow completely. We kept a constant watch on the falling snow and coordinated with others for the search. It was heart warming to see people looking out for someone whom we didn’t even know. After more than an hour of search, we stopped looking and called the 911 for the rescue operations. We divided into 2 groups, the first which included me planned to reach the trailhead soon and inform the SAR(Search and Rescue) team about the vehicle they came in which would be helpful in identifying the people and locating their cellphones. We descended quickly while one of my fellow hiker was in touch with the other group. We saw a fresh tire mark when we crossed the service road and wondered if it was an emergency vehicle.
This video shows exactly what happened. Watching it in 0.25x speed will be helpful.
Kou was the person who we were looking for. We had reached around 13 minutes after he had glissaded down that chute. I was in the first group who left for trailhead and others came later. A fellow hiker shared this video and its interesting to see what happened. Here is the Strava link for the same.
We reached the trailhead around 2:30 PM and a Sheriff there informed us that the hikers whom we were searching for had glissaded down that chute and were safely back. Even the other group were aware of the news and they came down after an hour while I waited in the Sun enjoying the surroundings having lunch. We were all glad to be safe back. Mother nature and the team taught me many things today.
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