Warning: Beware of avalanche
February 4, 1998
By MARK FREEMAN
Recent storms put danger in mountains
Stiff winds and unseasonably heavy snows have triggered avalanche warnings for Southern Oregon’s back woods.
The Rogue River National Forest is warning snowboarders, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers against venturing off safe trails and into the paths of potential avalanches.
A similar warning has gone out at Crater Lake National Park, where avalanche warnings are rated as “extreme” amid unconfirmed reports of at least one snowboarder being briefly buried by slipping snow last week.
The region’s maritime climate does not generate the frequency or severity of avalanches experienced in continental climates such as the Rocky Mountains, said Steve Johnson, a Rogue Forest snow ranger.
However, they remain a very real threat here.
“It doesn’t take much to kill someone,” Johnson said. “I know of no one being killed by avalanches in Southern Oregon — and I’m trying to avoid that.”
The best advice for people is to use extreme caution when skiing, snowmobiling or snow-shoeing on or beneath steep slopes and near areas where snow has built up from high winds.
Danger also is highest during a 24-hour period after a storm or other significant weather, such as high winds or dramatic warming.
The built-up areas, called cornices, are plentiful this year because of hefty February winds. But what looks like a pristine point for a photograph can be extremely dangerous.
“It’s really easy for someone to walk out to a cornice,” Johnson said. “Just that little extra weight is enough to break it off.”
The alerts come after weekend storms have dumped several feet of new snow in the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains.
At Mount Ashland, 42 inches of snow fell between Friday night and Sunday morning, with an additional inch falling by mid-morning Monday.
That boosts the snow base to 134 inches at the Mount Ashland lodge, and 175 inches on top.
At Crater Lake, 38 inches of snow fell over the weekend, boosting the base to 148 inches.
Crater Lake park rangers have received an unconfirmed report of a snowboarder having to be dug out by friends after being hit by an avalanche while boarding on a steep slope off Highway 62 near the park’s southwest side, Chief Ranger George Buckingham said.
While the warning is listed as “extreme,” avalanches play little role in the park because most people play along open flats away from steep hills.
“If you’re out in the flat, it doesn’t matter how slippery the snow is because it has nowhere to slide,” Buckingham said.
The heavy snow has left the road to the lake-viewing area closed since Friday, and Buckingham hopes the road will be plowed and opened today.
Visitors should telephone the park at 594-2211 before visiting.
Johnson says “sheer luck” is responsible for the absence of known avalanche deaths in southwest Oregon as more and more people tempt fate by venturing off the beaten snow paths.
The area on the west side of Mount Ashland near the Siskiyou Crest and the southwest slopes of Mount McLoughlin are the most prone to damaging avalanches because they are steep and get plenty of visitors, Johnson said.
Snowmobilers and snowboarders are probably the most vulnerable to avalanches because snow machines are so powerful and snowboarders “seem to be a little more adventurous group” than fellow visitors to the snow, Johnson said.
Johnson assured recreationists that most designated ski and snowmobile trails on the Rogue Forest are situated away from areas with avalanche potential. But venturing a short distance off a trail may lead you into avalanche territory.
“I’m not saying do not go into the back country,” he said. “But if you do, you need the knowledge to recognize the hazards.”
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