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In our View: Deceptive nature of snow


The silent avalanche threat

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It's one of nature's dangerous contradictions: as spring brightens life down here, the conditions grow deadly in the mountains.
This April alone, two people were killed near Snoqualmie Pass by avalanches.
That number could climb as hikers tempted by the sun decide to get an early jump on their season and winter sports aficionados -- on skis, snowshoes and snowboards -- try to squeeze in one last trip.
Before going to the Cascades in the coming weeks, visitors should be certain to check the conditions. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center is one very good resource, issuing regular bulletins online at nwac.us.
Avalanches have been in the news, both locally and nationally in the past weeks. The coverage has highlighted another of nature's contradictions: a layer of soft, white snow can quickly become a heavy wall of cascading ice, capable of wiping clean almost everything in its path.
Along with the fatalities in the Cascades, five snowboarders were killed last week in Colorado. The New York Times also won a Pulitzer Prize this month for its in-depth feature on an avalanche in February 2012 that killed three expert skiers near Stevens Pass.
As the Times noted in its story, deaths died to avalanches have been on the rise. Before 1980, it was unusual for more than 10 to happen in a year. One recent season, that figure basically tripled, hitting 34.
In part the rising number is due to the popularity of winter sports and the tendency of thrill-seekers to go into back-country areas, where ski runs haven't been groomed.
The climbing popularity also naturally means that each year sees novices entering new terrain, some forewarned about the dangers, and others perhaps not fully comprehending the risks, which are many.
Last week, for instance, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center issued a bulletin for the North and Central Cascades, saying conditions were ripe for avalanches, with recently fallen wet snow growing unstable in the spring sun. The center raised the alarm on two fronts.
It notified travelers that wet loose snow can form a slow but powerful avalanche, with even a small slide imperiling a person.
The center also reminded people that cornices -- chunks of overhanging snow -- can look small, but in fact are often the size of a small car. When they tumble down in the spring, they can trigger an avalanche or take out a hiker in their path.
All of this serves as a reminder of the importance to check on conditions before heading out the door.
And, of course, regardless of the forecast, to err on the side of caution, knowing how deceptively dangerous snow can become.

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