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Hidden hazard: Backcountry hikers on snowfields

The hazard? A hole in the snow pack that can swallow unaware hikers. (KOMO Photo)

Four hikers have died falling into snow holes in the backcountry in the last six years.

Three died in just the last two years, and all three where in the exact same spot above Colchuck Lake near Leavenworth.

On a July day, the Forest Service’s Mason Sure briefly stood guard at the Colchuck Lake trailhead and warned hikers about a deadly hidden hazard on the route to Aasgard Pass in the popular Enchantment Basin.

"We'd like you to know there are hazards on Aasgard Pass, that sign spells them out and you need to make decisions while you are up there," said Sure, Wilderness Program Manager for the Wenatchee River Ranger District, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

The hazard? A hole in the snow pack that can swallow unaware hikers.

"You need to have the proper skills, need to plan and understand the route, need experience and above all you need to exercise good judgment," said Sure.

As temperatures warm in the spring, a waterfall is born beneath the snow pack on Aasgard, undermining it until it collapses creating a gaping hole.

"Obviously it's already killed three people, so it's a significantly dangerous thing to be around," said Chelan County Sheriff's Deputy Mike McLeod.

McLeod often runs the department's search and rescue team operations.

He responded to all three fatal accidents on Aasgard.

On the day KOMO News met up with McLeod, he was headed up to the Pass with another team member to try to locate the body of the latest Aasgard Pass victim, a 19-year-old man from Mercer Island.

Ben Gore was headed down Aasgard Pass, after a day of hiking when he slid right into the hole in early June.

On another attempt, McLeod, found and retrieved Gore's body. He said it had slid about 30 or 40 feet under the snow pack.

All three victims glissaded right into the icy tomb below Aasgard Pass.

Glissading is a technique where hikers and climbers sit on their backside and slide down using an ice ax as a brake.

"Experience is a pretty subjective thing out here," said McLeod, "It really bothers me when someone gets killed up here that didn't need to be."

McLeod said it is particularly tough when the victims are so young, like 19-year-old Gore.

"That was really painful when we heard the news of Ben," said Rui Li.

Li learned of Ben's death on the same day she and friends were remembering 24-year-old Qi He.

He slid into the icy hazard in 2016 almost one year to the day that Ben slid to his death.

They both died the first weekend in June.

Li's mother called her with the shocking news.

"I said, what is it? She said the same thing happened, but with another young man. She goes, it's the same thing, exact same hole, exact same time," Li said.

And in 2011, a 21 year old Eatonville woman glissaded into the same icy deathtrap.

Back country enthusiasts need to be aware those hidden danger can occur on almost any snowfield where running water is snow covered.

Earlier this month, a man skied into a hole in the Muir Snowfield at Pebble Creek on Mount Rainier.

The Forest Service has taken the uncommon extra step of posting warnings at the trailheads to Aasgard Pass.

Something He's family and others petitioned for.

"If he can help save a life, if he didn't die for nothing than all the better," said Li.

Steve Smith, Climbing Education Manager for The Mountaineers, a nonprofit, hopes his story will save lives too.

"Mine was certainly a preventable incident," Smith said.

Smith said he glissaded into that hole on Aasgard Pass 19 years ago and it was his fault.

He wrote about his story for The Mountaineers' blog to warn others.

"You should assess the situation and use good technique," Smith said. "Asking yourself 'why am I doing what I'm doing'."

He said being lackadaisical led to near death.

He had little snow travel training, glissaded carelessly, never assessed the terrain ahead, and went over a blind spot at full speed.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, daylight turned to darkness.

"I was like oh my God, I have somehow slipped under the snowpack."

Smith slid 30 feet before stopping. "In a pitch black, freezing water fall, hard to breathe with water pouring over my head and face, wedged in between rock and ice, and dazed from having hit my head."

Climbing up was impossible.

"I had this now you need to do something or you are going to die," said Smith.

He followed an eroded out section of snow and clawed his way to freedom. His fingers frozen and bloodied.

"I doubt I would ever forget what happened to me," said Smith. "Any time something awful like that happens we have an opportunity to grieve, and convert that incident into some kind of learning."

The Forest Service recently enhanced the signage including even more details of Aasgard Pass's hidden hazard.

And hikers, who read the signs are heeding the warning.

"It's really beautiful, but not worth the risk," said Brianna Graves with her hiking buddy. They decided to change their plans, stop at Colchuck instead of pushing beyond to Aasgard Pass.

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