An avalanche occurs when a layer of snow loses its grip on a slope and slides downhill. Avalanches have killed more than 190 people in the past century in Washington State, exceeding deaths from any other natural hazard. One of the nation’s worst avalanche disasters occurred in 1910 when massive avalanches hit two trains stopped on the west side of Stevens Pass; 96 people were killed. Avalanches kill one to two people, on average, every year in Washington, although many more are involved in avalanche accidents that do not result in fatalities. Since 1985, avalanches have killed 33 people. Most current avalanche victims are participating in recreational activities in the backcountry where there is no avalanche control. Only one-tenth of one percent of avalanche fatalities occurs on open runs at ski areas or on highways.
Avalanches occur in four mountain ranges in the state – the Cascade Range, which divides the state east and west, the Olympic Mountains in northwest Washington, the Blue Mountains in southeast Washington, and the Selkirk Mountains in northeast Washington.
The avalanche season begins in November and continues until early summer for all mountain areas of the state. In the high alpine areas of the Cascades and Olympics, the avalanche season continues year-round.
There are two types of avalanches, loose and slab, and two types of slab avalanches, dry and wet. Although the most dangerous avalanche is the slab avalanche, loose slides can and do produce injury and death.
Loose avalanches occur when grains of snow cannot hold onto a slope and begin sliding downhill, picking up more snow and fanning out in an inverted V. Slab avalanches occur when a cohesive mass of snow breaks away from the slope all at once.
Dry slab avalanches occur when the stresses on a slab overcome the internal strength of the slab and its attachment to surrounding snow. A decrease in strength produced through warming, melting snow, or rain, or an increase in stress produced by the weight of additional snowfall, a skier or a snowmobile cause this type of avalanche. Dry slab avalanches can travel 60 to 80 miles per hour, reaching these speeds within five seconds after the fracture; they account for most avalanche fatalities. Wet slab avalanches occur when water percolating through the top slab weakens it and dissolves its bond with a lower layer, decreasing the ability of the weaker, lower layer to hold on to the top slab, as well as decreasing the slab’s strength.
Tips and Information about Avalanches
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