Emails reveal efforts made to warn of danger at Big Four Ice Caves

VERLOT — People will continue to die at the Big Four Ice Caves.

That’s what police were saying privately before and after a California woman was killed by falling ice July 6. In fact, leaders at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office were exchanging emails with the U.S. Forest Service about the dangers, saying “it’s just a matter of time,” two hours before the death.

For more than 15 years, Snohomish County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom has headed up the search &rescue team. In that time he has been called to two of three deaths at the caves, which form at the base of what he calls a “monster mountain face” regularly swept by avalanches and rock fall.

On July 9, three days after the death, Wikstrom wrote in an email to the U.S. Forest Service. “My feeling is that due to ease of access and people’s lack of understanding or appreciation of the deadly potential that this will continue and periodically inexperienced people will continue to die there.”

The Daily Herald obtained dozens of emails between police and the Forest Service through a public records request. The records show that the sheriff’s office and forest rangers were coordinating efforts to get the word out about the heightened dangers for months before the death. Their emails document how Wikstrom and sheriff’s chief pilot Bill Quistorf led a personal and dedicated campaign to make sure responders would be prepared if the caves collapsed with people trapped inside.

The search &rescue team has drilled for a major operation at the ice caves every year for the past five years, Quistorf wrote.

Two days after the death, Wikstrom even suggested permanently closing off the popular hiking route — “decommissioning the whole thing and letting nature reclaim it.”

“We’ve all been worried about this happening and it’s going to happen again and again and again,” he wrote.

In late May, Wikstrom wrote that despite safety-education efforts, placing warning signs and having rangers talk to hikers about the dangers, he wasn’t sure there was “anything else one reasonably can do.”

Hours before the July 6 death, officials had learned of a smaller collapse at the caves the day before. A video posted to YouTube showed people being narrowly missed by a massive chunk of ice falling from the lip of a cave. Some hikers covered their heads with their arms and ran.

At 3:37 p.m. that day, Wikstrom wrote: “I don’t know what it’s going to take.”

Sheriff’s Bureau Chief Mark Richardson wrote him back three minutes later: “I’d love to destroy (the ice caves), we are going to have another death, it’s just a matter of time.”

Wikstrom then sent a note to an ice geologist asking for advice on keeping rescuers safe at the caves. In particular, crews wanted to know how to mitigate the dangers they would face at the outer edges of the ice formation in the event of a disaster.

At 5:39 p.m., Wikstrom’s fears came true. He had to summon his team to respond to an ice collapse that would prove fatal.

The Big Four Ice Caves is one of the most popular hikes in Snohomish County and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The short, nearly flat trail leading to the caves draws thousands of visitors every year, many of them families with children. The trail leads up toward the maw of the unstable caves, which form amid melting avalanche debris. They give off a tantalizing and cooling breeze.

The trail to the caves remains closed while the Forest Service considers its options. Extra police patrols have been added to keep people out. There’s talk of removing a pedestrian bridge over the South Fork Stillaguamish River to further hamper access.

Three people have died at the caves since 1998, most recently July 6 when Annalisa Santana was killed by falling ice while visiting from California. Searchers had to use explosives to retrieve her body, which was buried under ice 50 yards into the cave. Several other people were injured that day, including a man whose leg was nearly severed.

In 2010, 11-year-old Grace Tam was killed by a chunk of ice that broke off while she was 20 feet away from the caves.

In the past, the Forest Service even stacked rocks to plug user-made trails approaching the caves, only to find the obstructions pushed aside, Adrienne Hall, manager of the Verlot Ranger Station, wrote in an email to Wikstrom.

“I’m at the point that I can put signs all over the place (in English and International symbols), but if no one reads or looks at them, then it’s pointless,” she wrote. “The only purpose signage serves right now (in my opinion) is to cover our backside from a legal perspective.”

The Tam family sued the Forest Service after Grace’s death asking for more safety measures. They lost the court case.

The caves were particularly dangerous this summer because of unusually hot weather and the lack of winter snow. Public records show officials were talking about the problems as early as March — when someone snapped a photo of young children playing inside the caves. The photo was sent on March 28 to the Forest Service, which shared it with Wikstrom and other sheriff’s personnel. At the time, Hall suggested filming a warning video for public distribution.

“I don’t think a video would help,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton wrote back. “Anyone with any backcountry experience would see those trees sheared off about 8 feet up when you come up to the caves and know there is significant avalanche and ice fall danger.”

The problem, Wikstrom wrote back, is not people with outdoors experience, but that the caves are “so easily accessible by nearly anyone that can walk and they wind up at the base of a monster mountain face complete with rock fall, avalanches, etc.”

Wikstrom at one point wrote that he was unsure how they had so far managed to avoid a “mass casualty tragedy there such as a cave collapse with numerous people inside.”

That scenario had been the focus of a June 25 training exercise with search &rescue, firefighters, police and Airlift Northwest, the helicopter ambulance operation run by UW Medicine.

Lessons fom the training made a difference in the real-life rescues and recovery that followed just days later, crews wrote each other afterward. Before the collapse, Quistorf and Hall had planned to walk together to the caves July 8 to determine if rock debris needed to be cleared out so two helicopters could land in case of an incident.

“I can tell you that we executed the mission last night just as we had drilled,” Quistorf wrote July 7.

Falling chunks of ice were reported at the caves in May, too.

At that time, the ice was in “a condition that we would normally see in September — large, inviting and collapsing,” one forest ranger wrote. “As we head into the busiest and warmest part of the season the cave is in its most dangerous state.”

That message was forwarded to the sheriff’s office.

Wikstrom wrote back on May 11: “Will the (Forest Service) be putting anything out to the public about this? I sure hope so — this is a disaster waiting to happen.”

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