VERLOT — Dozens of people could fit inside the frozen caverns.
It’s a nightmare for the U.S. Forest Service and search and rescue teams.
The Big Four Ice Caves are unstable. Being in or near the caves at the wrong time could be deadly. Warnings have been shared on signs, social media, in public meetings and through news coverage.
On Saturday, a hiker shared a photograph on the “Washington Hikers and Climbers” Facebook page. It shows people in the caves. It’s one of multiple similar photos on social media in recent months.
“My frustration level is pretty high when I see the pictures posted of people right outside or inside the ice caves,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, with Snohomish County Search and Rescue. “I just don’t know what else can be said.”
The Big Four Ice Caves trail, along the Mountain Loop Highway in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, draws an estimated 50,000 people each year.
Tons of snow accumulate in a gully on the north side of Big Four Mountain from avalanches over the winter. Caves form when snowmelt and warmer air in the spring hollow out the snow.
Chunks of ice can break off and the caves eventually collapse. Four people have died from falling ice in the last 18 years, including 11-year-old Grace Tam, who was struck by falling ice while she was standing about 20 feet from the caves. In July 2015, a cave partially collapsed with people inside. Annalisa Santana died at the scene and her brother, David Santana, died months later of his injuries.
Police, firefighters and forest rangers plan and train for an emergency at the caves. They urge people to stay back. It might seem safer to approach the caves in the fall than in the summer, but the ice remains unstable.
“I can see where people might think that because it’s not actively melting, or it’s not melting at the same rate on a 50 degree day as a 100 degree day, but there are so many structural concerns with the caves,” Darrington district ranger Peter Forbes said. “They are never safe to go into.”
Two out-of-state professors who study risk management and public recreation visited the Ice Caves a few weeks ago. Their proposal to provide expert opinions on improving safety there is being reviewed by the forest service. There has been talk of rerouting the end of the trail and that option still is on the table, though no decisions have been made, Forbes said.
Over the summer, rangers were stationed at the overlook on the Ice Caves trail, mostly on weekends. They estimate they saw nearly 15,000 hikers and talked to more than 6,800 of them. Over the last three years, they’ve talked to more than 20,000 visitors.
If rangers see people heading toward the snowfield, they don’t follow but will try to talk to them on the trail, Forbes said.
“Even if people are aware of the risks they’re taking, they’re thinking, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen to me,’” he said. “It gets to the point where you wonder: Do you understand the real risk and what the consequences might be?”
Wikstrom has spent a lot of time at the caves for recreation and for search and rescue. At night, when temperatures are low, ice still can be heard falling. It sometimes sounds like something the size of house is crashing down, he said. Going into or onto the caves is “a cosmic roll of the dice.”
“People get away with so much with that roll of the dice, so they think it’s OK,” he said. “But it’s not OK. Not in my view, anyway.”
As the days get shorter and the weather cooler and wetter, the ice caves aren’t the only concern for rescuers and rangers. Fall hiking on any trail can be dangerous if people aren’t prepared with basics such as food, water, warmth, light and medical supplies.
The weather can turn or the sun can set on a trip that takes longer than planned. People should pack as though they’ll get lost, Wikstrom said. Tackling a trail late in the afternoon wearing tennis shoes and cotton clothes, carrying no more than a cell phone and a bottle of water, is a bad plan. Searches in remote areas take time and people may need to survive the night. He also reminds hikers to let someone know where they’re going, what they’re driving and when they should be back.
Taking precautions can be life-saving if something goes wrong.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.