Big Four Ice Caves’ future uncertain after collapse, death

VERLOT — In the 10 days since the Big Four Mountain Ice Caves collapsed and killed a California woman and injured five others, people have been left to wonder what the future holds for the popular yet dangerous hiking destination.

The U.S. Forest Service can expect an earful of advice. Some want to make sure the ice caves remain open. Some want them closed. Others have ideas about limiting access, seasonal fencing and more forceful warning signs.

They are planning to gather public comment but community meetings have not yet been scheduled.

For now, the caves remain closed with a barricade in front of a bridge on the trail and rangers assigned to turn people away. Two people caught in the cave collapse remain in a Seattle hospital, including David Santana, 25, whose sister, Annalisa Santana, 34, died July 7. He’s still listed in critical condition in the intensive care unit. U.S. Forest Service officials say they are gathering information about the tragedy with plans of consulting scientists. This week, they are reviewing what happened and meeting with Snohomish County Search and Rescue leaders for additional perspectives before assessing their next steps.

What those could be is too early to say.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t want to speculate,” said Tracy O’Toole, a Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest spokeswoman.

The ice caves are the most popular hiking attraction in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, drawing thousands of visitors each year, particularly in the late summer. The caves are at the bottom of Big Four Mountain, and form from compressed, melting avalanche debris.

An online petition and letter urges the Forest Service to keep the ice caves open. As of Thursday, the petition had more than 800 names.

Among other things, the letter said: “The loss of life is tragic, but closing the caves is not the answer. If people ignore the warning signs that are prolific throughout the trail and at the caves, logic dictates that the same folks will ignore the closed signs as well.”

John Tam has crusaded for safety measures at the ice caves. His daughter, Grace, was 11 when she died there five years ago. She never went inside and was standing on a rock about 20 feet in front, waiting for a photo to be taken, when a large chunk of ice broke off, bounced and crushed her.

The Tams sued the Forest Service, hoping to force safety changes at the ice caves. Their wrongful death suit was dismissed.

It troubles him that every summer he returns to the foot of Big Four on the anniversary of his daughter’s death, he sees people going into the caves.

The day before the July 7 collapse that killed Annalisa Santana, large chunks of ice fell from the front of the cave, forcing people inside to scramble out. Santana was the third death at the ice caves since 1998. Catherine Shields, a 27-year-old Bothell woman, was killed by collapsing snow in August, 1998.

Jason Martin makes a living in the mountains. He’s a Northwest guide and director of operations for the American Alpine Institute in Seattle. Although he typically likes to leave nature alone, Martin believes more can be done to make the ice caves safer.

He would like to see a temporary fence with bold warning signs placed there in the spring and summer. A year-round fence would never last, given the rugged winters and avalanches, he said.

“It’s too accessible for people who don’t understand the danger,” Martin said. “The last thing they would expect is they are going to get avalanched wearing tennis shoes and T-shirts.”

People need to understand that it is part of the ice caves’ life cycle to fall apart, he said.

While there are Forest Service signs and a memorial to Grace Tam describing the dangers on the trail, Martin said such warnings often go unheeded.

Attaching warnings to a fence they’d need to climb over to get to the ice caves would reinforce the risks they‘re taking, he said.

Gordon Janow is director of programs for Alpine Ascents International. His travels have taken him to remote reaches of Mongolia, India, Iran and Yemen.

Janow said he wouldn’t want to see a fence blocking the view of the ice caves, but perhaps additional signage with simpler and more insistent messages to stop.

“I don’t think people should be going in any time,” he said. “They should enjoy it from afar.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446;

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