My phone is a shitty camera

Life and Death in Snoqualmie Pass

This was only borderline post-worthy (which says something, considering some of what manages to exceed my threshold) until I brought up Sunday’s Stevens Pass disaster.

A little background:

  • I went snowboarding last Sunday at Snoqualmie with three family members: Cousin O (CO), Cousin E (CE), and Aunt K (AK). More specifically, I went snowboarding and they went skiing.
  • CO’s school takes her to Stevens Pass every Friday to ski. She urged us Sunday morning to go to Stevens Pass, not Snoqualmie West. We settled on Snoqualmie Central.
  • Also on Sunday, CE sailed over the edge of a cliff and gracefully landed in a pile of fresh powder. The event produced a lot of laughs and one classic video.

And that’s all you need to set the scene:

Driving home, AK receives a text message from her son, Cousin J (CJ – last one, I promise). The text reads Avalanche at Stevens Pass, are you OK? The text hits close to home – had we taken CO’s advice, we could have easily been at Stevens. So AK deftly pulls up the AP story on her phone and hands it to me to read aloud.

The story (same version of the article, different link) opens with specific details of the incident:

STEVENS PASS, Wash. — Three skiers were killed Sunday when an avalanche swept them about a quarter-mile down an out-of-bounds canyon at a popular resort, but a fourth skier caught up in the slide was saved by a safety device, authorities said.

The four were among three groups of skiers – about a dozen people in all – making their way through a foot and a half of fresh snow on the back side of Stevens Pass when the avalanche hit. Stevens Pass is in the Cascade Mountains, about 80 miles northeast of Seattle.

All were buried to some extent, but the men who died were swept approximately 1,500 feet down a chute in the Tunnel Creek Canyon area, King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Katie Larson said.

As I continue to read, two things happen: 1) we realize the victims were backcountry skiers, i.e. they would not have been us even had we gone to Stevens, and 2) the details grow less and less specific – and therefore, less directly relevant:

It’s been a deadly winter in Washington’s mountains. Four people disappeared in vicious storms while camping and climbing on Mount Rainier last month. The four remain missing, and authorities have said they’re hoping to find their bodies when the snow melts this summer.

Across the West, there had been 13 avalanche deaths this season as of Thursday, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which tracks avalanche deaths in the U.S.

Experts have said the risk of additional slides in the region could remain high all season. They attribute the dangers in part to a weak base layer of snow caused by a dry winter.

Avalanche deaths are more common in the backcountry than at ski resorts. Out of about 900 avalanche deaths nationwide since the winter of 1950-51, 32 were within terrain that was open for riding at ski resorts, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.

That’s not to say the article wasn’t interesting: AP stories are written to be cut off at any length to suit a newspaper’s needs, so writers make sure to hit the important points in their opening paragraphs; what comes next is background filler.* So once we had come to the conclusion that had we gone to Stevens we would almost assuredly still be alive, I was instructed to skim the rest of the article.

Which is how I ended up at the last paragraph:

Also Sunday, King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Cindi West said a snowboarder was killed in a separate incident at the Alpental ski area east of Seattle. The snowboarder, a man, went over a cliff.

Something you might not know: you can see Alpental from Snoqualmie. And some reminders: I am a snowboarder. CE had just gone off a cliff. Of course, we were all safely in the car, but suddenly shit felt more real. The experience reminded me of the time my eighth grade trip to Israel was on Ben Yehuda at the time a bomb went off. This experience was, of course less dramatic, but at least no one was killed in that particular bombing. The same could no longer be said of our trip to Snoqualmie.

Snowboarding can certainly be fun, and at times even beautiful

but Sunday served as a sobering reminder that on the slopes – really, anywhere in life – everything can change in an instant.

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*Suggestions to better-punctuate/construct this sentence welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Life and Death in Snoqualmie Pass”

  1. I was snow-shoeing at Snoqualmie Pass that day. I didn’t realize until I got back to Seattle how lucky I’d been (although, like you, I wouldn’t have been in the path anyway). I’ve been learning as much as I can about avy forcasting since this sad day.

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