Three members of a seven-person climbing group were killed in an avalanche on Colchuk Peak February 19th. The avalanche that hit Washington state is the deadliest in the United States this year.
According to authorities, the lead climber triggered the avalanche, and four climbers were swept about 1,000 feet down the mountain.
What Caused The Avalanche?
The climbing group was attempting to climb a steep gorge on the 8,705-foot Colchuck Peak in the Cascade Mountains when the avalanche happened.
“It sounds like the lead climber actually [caused the avalanche] by planting his ice ax [and he] triggered a slab that they were on to slide,” Sgt. Jason Reinfeld told NBC News. “The ice ax created a crack that allowed the slab to slide.”
Northwest Avalanche Center described the incident as follows:
“A group of six climbers attempted to climb the Northeast Couloir route on Colchuck Peak. At approximately 1:15pm, while ascending the route, the lead climber triggered a slab avalanche that caught and carried four members of the team approximately 1000ft to the base of the climb. Three of the climbers suffered fatal traumatic injuries, and a fourth sustained lower extremity injuries. The remaining climbers attempted to evacuate all individuals but were unsuccessful. Subsequent natural avalanches impacted the accident site in the hours following the event.”
Police told the Seattle Times they believe two died instantly from the avalanche and the third died shortly after. The fourth victim was injured but was able to hike out.
Who Were The Victims?
The victims are 54-year-old Seong Cho from Connecticut, 60-year-old Jeannie Lee from New York, and 66-year-old Yun Park from New Jersey according to the Seattle Times. A 56-year-old man from New York was also injured but survived.Two other climbers did not suffer any injuries.
The local sheriff’s office was alerted to the deaths by the seventh climber who remained behind at the base camp and went looking for help when the remaining group members returned after the avalanche.
There have been multiple avalanches since the initial one that killed the climbers. Only Cho’s body has been recovered so far.
Part of the search included the use of a RECCO device mounted on a cable under a helicopter, which can detect chips sewn into some outdoor gear and help provide the location of someone buried under avalanche debris.
Avalanche experts say the conditions in the area have not been safe enough to deploy additional rescue and recovery teams. The case remains pending and open with the two additional bodies yet to be recovered.
Inherent Risks In Climbing
According to Avalanche.org the total number of fatalities in 2023 due to an avalanche is nine. On average, about 27 Americans die in avalanches every year.
Climbing as a sport, in and of itself, is inherently dangerous. Last year 204 accidents resulting in 210 injuries and 22 deaths were reported to Accidents in North American Climbing (ANAC), a long-running annual publication that documents mountaineering and climbing.
Add in the threat of an avalanche, depending on where you climb, and you can see the danger these climbers were in, regardless of their experience.