Changes may be made at ice caves

VERLOT — The U.S. Forest Service is considering changing wording on warning signs, rerouting the trail and limiting public access to the Big Four Ice Caves after an 11-year-old Marysville girl was killed by falling ice July 31.

It’s common practice to review ways to make the popular hiking destination safer after a death or major accident, said Peter Forbes, a district ranger for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

“We need to look at the whole package and figure out what’s the best way to deal with it,” Forbes said.

Changes could be made by fall.

Grace Tam was on a family outing last Saturday when a giant ice chunk broke loose, bounced and struck her. She died from internal injuries.

The caves east of Granite Falls are among the most popular destinations in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The mountain ice, located at a relatively low elevation, lures hikers, especially when a cool breeze streams off it on hot summer days.

Existing signs leading to the ice caves warn that they are unstable and can collapse. They also warn not to enter or climb on top of the caves.

Grace did not go in or on top of the caves. Her father, John, estimates she was about 15 feet away when the tragedy occurred.

The Forest Service wants to get across the message that the ice caves should be enjoyed from a safe distance, but describing that distance on a sign is easier said than done, Forbes said.

It can vary from season to season and along the ice itself depending on the pitch of the slope, Forbes said.

In winter and spring, avalanches are a big risk. Melting ice breaking off and falling presents the biggest danger in summer and fall.

Over the years, most serious accidents have occurred inside or at the mouth of the caves.

In 1998, a Bothell woman died when part of an icy arch near the cave entrance collapsed on her. Two boys survived being caught in a 1996 collapse. Before that, two men exploring the caves were trapped when the entrance collapsed. They managed to dig themselves out with their pocket knives.

“After the last fatality we moved the formal end of the trail away from the ice caves to try to keep people in a safer location and made clear they go beyond that at their own risk,” Forbes said.

Forest Service workers also have tried posting signs by the cave entrances, but they get knocked down.

The Forest Service also could post signs closing the caves and threaten to fine people who continue forward, but it would be difficult to enforce such a restriction, Forbes said.

The ice caves are a magnet for recreational hikers and the trail has benefited from improvements, including a new $425,000 bridge that opened in July 2009, in recent years.

“The most extreme option would be to close the area,” Forbes said. “After putting so much investment into the area, that doesn’t seem so practical. People would go over there anyhow.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446,

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