Avalanche danger grows as snow piles up in mountains

SNOQUALMIE PASS, Wash. -- Approaching storms are bringing new concerns in the Cascade Mountains this week. Avalanche dangers are already running high, and will likely get worse as the snowpack piles up.

"This morning, they were out making the slopes as safe as possible," said Rob Gibson, the ski patrol director for Summit at Snoqualmie. He added, "It's never completely safe."

At least a foot has fallen in the past two days around Alpental. Snowboarder Nate Scurich is ready.

"It's always good to check the slopes as you're driving up. You can just see things just slabbing off," Scurich said.

"Slabbing off" refers to the looming avalanche danger, and the Northwest Avalanche Center says the risks are growing. That's especially true at or above the tree line, and on leeward facing slopes where strong winds pile up extra snow.

Forecasters say the problem is that January dumped low density snow, which has since been covered with lots of wetter and much more dense snow. That's left the slopes top-heavy and unstable, which can trigger slab avalanches.

"There's lots of snow on the way," Gibson said. "They've got a bunch of storms lined up for the week, and when that happens they just pile one on top of the other. It just tends to be the domino effect. It gets a little more dangerous each day."

Experienced skiers and snowboarders don't leave anything to chance. Scurich carries an avalanche beacon even when he rides "in-bounds."

"It's always just better to be safe than dead," Scurich said, only half jokingly.

Ski patrol says always check the forecasts and know your abilities.

"It's not only about your safety and your abilities, it's about others as well," adds skier Juya Ghanaie. "If you're ducking the lines and don't understand the repercussions, you can get yourself in some big trouble."

Most local ski resorts offer a backcountry safety course for beginners. In addition, Alpental is hosting a "Vertfest" on Feb. 15 and 16 highlighting avalanche dangers - and how to avoid them.