VERLOT — The U.S. Forest Service plans to bring together a team of trail builders, landscape architects and social scientists to look for ways to deter hikers from venturing into the deadly Big 4 Mountain Ice Caves.
The trail leading to the caves likely will be reopened next year despite three deaths from collapsing ice during the past five years. Before then, researchers and trail experts from Seattle and Portland are expected to hike the trail and make suggestions.
“We are still trying to sort out how we proceed forward,” said Peter Forbes, district ranger for the half-million acre Darrington Ranger District in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “I’m hoping we can open it by next summer.
“The landscape up there would allow us some relocation of the trail,” Forbes said. “If we identify something we can do, we have to figure out how are we going to fund it.”
This was a particularly dangerous year at the ice caves, the most popular hiking attraction in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The caves draw thousands of visitors each year, particularly in the late summer.
They are at the bottom of Big Four Mountain, and form from compressed, melting avalanche debris. With this year’s limited snowpack and hot, dry weather, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office was warning people away almost as soon as the trail was open to hikers. By May, sections of the caves were collapsing.
On July 5, large chunks of ice fell from the front of the cave, forcing people inside to scramble out.
The next day, there was a bigger collapse inside the cave. Anna Santana, 34, a California woman, died that day from blunt force injuries. Five others were injured, including her brother, David Santana, 25, of Lynnwood. He died from his injuries in October. Both had young children.
The caves continued to deteriorate after the trail was closed. On Oct. 19, the Forest Service discovered that the remainder of the caves had fallen into a big pile of snow. It was the first total collapse in the more than nine years Forbes has served as district ranger.
The Forest Service received more than 180 responses when it asked for public feedback after the July tragedy. Most people said the Forest Service should keep the trail open.
The Santanas were the third and fourth people to die at the caves in the past 17 years. Catherine Shields, a 27-year-old Bothell woman, was killed by collapsing snow in August, 1998. Grace Tam, 11, of Marysville, died five years ago. She never went inside. Instead, she was standing on a rock about 20 feet away from the front of the cave, waiting for a photograph to be taken, when ice broke free from the cave and struck her.
The girl’s family brought a wrongful death case, hoping to force the Forest Service into taking steps to increase safety at the caves. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Later, in the summer of 2014, Grace’s parents, John Tam and his wife, Tamami Okauchi, worked with the Forest Service to install a plaque with Grace’s image on it along the trail. It is meant to serve as a warning sign to stay away from the caves.
The last paragraph on the plaque describes the danger of the inviting spot: “The Tam family wants you to be aware that this is a beautiful but always changing environment. They hope that you enjoy the ice caves and Big Four Mountain only from a distance.”
Efforts also are under way to improve emergency response times to the caves where there is no cellphone reception. The trail is 1.1 miles and the telephone service at the Verlot ranger station is another 14.5 miles.
The Forest Service hopes to shorten that driving distance by nine miles next year by installing a land-line telephone to make 911 calls from Camp Silverton.
“We are still planning to do that,” Forbes said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.