By Irene Henninger
If you’re keen to get out for a winter hike, the Cascades have got a lot to offer. No matter the season it’s a good idea to plan for your trip and prepare. The 10 Essentials, a list of critical items for survival, are the standard recommendation for taking with you on any outing. In addition to preparing for an unintended mishap, snow in the mountains can add another layer of fun and challenge to your day.
Well yeah, it’s winter but there’s no snow at home or at the trailhead, what’s the problem? You may not find snow at lower elevation trailheads even in the midst of winter. The Cascades though, are a microcosm of wintery conditions: if you gain just a little elevation you could easily go from no, or minimal, snow to several feet, in just a couple of miles. If you encounter snow, it’s important to plan for having the right footwear including added traction (microspikes, etc) or flotation (snowshoes). However, it’s not just about what’s in your pack and on your feet.
What about avalanche danger?
One question we want to pose is, have you thought about avalanche danger? Many winter hikes in the Cascades travel through places where avalanches can occur. We call this avalanche terrain, or anywhere that an avalanche can start, run, and stop. Occasionally our winter hiking trails cross through areas where avalanches can travel. So, even though the steep snowy slopes are far above our heads, we can still be in avalanche terrain. People have been caught in and even killed by avalanches while hiking in the Cascades. We’ve had fatalities at popular high-use areas with short, easily accessible hikes. A snowshoer was killed in an avalanche on Granite Mountain at Snoqualmie Pass in 2015. A 13-year-old girl was killed in 2008 as her party was retreating during a blizzard that hampered their plans of hiking to Lake 22 near Granite Falls. These are only a couple of several unfortunate avalanche accidents which have unfolded in the Cascades over the years.
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t get out on hikes. One solution to avoid avalanches is to choose to hike in the lowlands or near the coast during the winter. These trails generally lack the tall snow-covered peaks over our heads. If you select a trail further up in the mountains, it’s important to plan it for the right day. Fortunately, there are tools to help you understand the potential avalanche danger. You can check the most up-to-date mountain weather and avalanche forecasts from the Northwest Avalanche Center (www.nwac.us). These forecasts are issued daily for 10 mountainous regions in the Washington Cascades, Olympics, and Mt Hood areas. On the home page select the zone on the map that covers the area you’d like to spend time in. You’re taken to the day’s avalanche forecast, specifying the avalanche danger level, and provided with basic travel advice. Take extra care, or avoid winter hikes in avalanche terrain when the danger is listed as Considerable, High, or Extreme.
Research the trail you’ll travel beforehand and keep looking around you as you hike. Just because your intended route may be a popular summer trail, there’s a good chance it’ll take you right through the gut of very large, and possibly dangerous avalanche paths in winter. Sections of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) are a good example of this. It might not be wise to travel along parts of that trail in winter.
The following are a few basic tips for understanding avalanches:
- Take a free Avalanche Awareness Class with NWAC. These 60 min courses can help you understand more about the basics of avalanche terrain and understanding avalanche danger.
- Trees are excellent clues for highlighting avalanche terrain. If there’s thick, large tree cover where you are that’s usually a good indicator of not being in avalanche terrain.
- Even a brief crossing of a skinny open gully might expose you to prime avalanche terrain. If the gully is steep or if there’s a sharply angled snow-covered slope high above, there’s a possibility that avalanches could easily make their way down that gully. If you must cross, do so quickly.
- Stay alert if you’re traveling through open, untreed areas. If you are on a steep, smooth slope, or if a steep, snow-loaded slope is above you then you may be in an avalanche path.
- Even if you’re in a valley bottom that’s snow-free, keep a lookout for any large snow-loaded avalanche paths above you. Consider giving a wider berth or avoiding the area.
- If you hear or see any avalanches while you’re out, it’s a good idea to stay well away from any avalanche terrain. This might be a good time to high-tail it back to the car.
Lastly, if you’re going to be out in avalanche terrain it’s advisable to carry avalanche rescue equipment and know how to use it. Consider taking an avalanche rescue course. By keeping a close eye on both the weather and avalanche forecasts, learning to identify and avoid avalanche terrain, and being prepared with the appropriate equipment, you can enjoy a great winter of hiking and snowshoeing in the Cascades.