Water Fight; The Sequel

Record heat creates avalanche rescue and multiple river fatalities in the Pacific Northwest
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Record heat creates avalanche rescue and multiple river fatalities in the Pacific Northwest

On Saturday, Portland, Oregon -among other Northwest cities- experienced 95-degree temperatures, exceeding their 1958 record for the date by a solid six degrees. As the area’s active population hit the woods for a weekend of heat escape, spring snowpacks turned to mashed potato consistency throughout the Cascades, Olympics and Coast Range, and river levels took off.

As a result, a party of three was caught by a wet snow avalanche near the Pearly Gates couloir on Mt. Hood. One 18-year-old was buried up to his neck in cement-weight snow, but was dug out unharmed. The Pearly Gates is a straightforward gully leading to the summit ridge of Mt. Hood, and is considered the crux of the mountain’s standard South Face/Hogsback Route. It is a common accident location because of the mountain’s prominence as a goal, quick access from Timberline Lodge, overall route ease combined with changeable weather, and the sheer number of climbers, many of them novices, who attempt the route. It was the scene of a multi-fatality fall and rescue in 2002 which led to a widely televised helicopter crash.

Snowpack run-off also led to multiple swiftwater rescues on Oregon’s Clackamas River, and three separate river tragedies in Washington (one confirmed, two probable as of press time). An experienced kayaker disappeared in a gorge section of the Green River south of Seattle, and an inexperienced quartet of rafters got dumped into a more moderate stretch, with one still missing. A young toddler drowned  after wandering from his family’s campsite along the Nisqually River near Ashford. On the Cowichan River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, another rafter disappeared while running heavy rapids.

Further east, the National Weather Service is issuing flood warnings for the Green River drainages in eastern Utah. Given the long mileages run-off must travel to reach and descend this very popular 1,000-mile trunk river, they expect levels to hit flood stage on the mainstem around Friday, May 24th.

Now that summer is truly hitting and Memorial Day is fast approaching, accidents seem to be dropping into an unfortunate but predictable annual cycle. Spring will see wet snow slides and lots of drownings. Mid-summer will progress to falls, lost hikers, and river fording accidents as recreationists move into the high country. By autumn we’ll see the usual parade of lost hunters, hypothermia victims and storm strandings. Then winter’s avalanche, frostbite, and lost snowmobiler season will begin again. But the season seems off to an unusually fast start.

Lots of pain and sorrow here folks. Heads up; Stay safe. Now I'm off for a week of spring mountaineering in Colorado. I'll try and heed my own advice. --Steve Howe