Editorial: Avalanche tragedyto the north hits close to home

February 22, 2012

We are connected by our mountains. The Cascades of Washington and Oregon are a geological backbone joining the two states. They are vital to our water supplies, ecosystems and local economies, as well as to the recreational opportunities enjoyed by so many Pacific Northwesterners.

So when an avalanche causes deaths virtually next door, it is a sobering reminder of the power of the mountain. The deaths Sunday at Stevens Pass, Wash., are felt most deeply by family members but also by the thousands of members of the greater Northwest skiing community.

"Today was a very sad day in the Washington Cascades, as we lost three skiers and a snowboarder in two separate avalanche accidents. We are all mourning the loss of friends and fellow backcountry enthusiasts," said Benj Wadsworth, executive director of Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, in a statement issued Monday.

"It's an absolute horror story," Powder Magazine Editor John Stifter told the Portland Oregonian after witnessing the avalanche.

Avalanche accidents are avoidable, noted Wadsworth. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center publishes a daily avalanche forecast at www.nwac.us that rates the avalanche hazard on a five level scale from low to extreme.

Anyone recreating in the mountains in the winter should check the avalanche forecast before leaving home and make decisions accordingly.

Beyond checking the avalanche forecast, people recreating in the mountains should take a basic avalanche awareness class. A schedule of upcoming classes is posted in the calendar section of www.nwac.us.

Locally, information on avalanche awareness is available at an informative kiosk at Dog River Coffee on Oak Street in Hood River, where Northwest Avalanche Center and the Forest Service recently hosted an avalanche awareness session. It's a good place to start.

Meanwhile, local school kids are getting an annual education on winter survival skills (page A5) in the annual Adventure Day at Meadows.

It's helpful for all of us to be as familiar as possible with the deadly potentials of the beautiful Mount Hood and other winter areas. Changes in winter weather, with fluctuations in temperature and precipitation creating literal layers of varying and volatile type of snow and ice present a somewhat ominous reality for anyone venturing onto trails and slopes in this region.

As Wadsworth put it, "An understanding of the avalanche hazard and careful route finding are imperative to staying alive in the mountains in the winter."

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