Avalanche risk high in Western Washington

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by ALISON MORROW / KING 5

Bio | Email | Follow: @AlisonMorrowTV

KING5.com

Posted on February 14, 2014 at 11:16 PM

Updated Saturday, Feb 15 at 1:42 PM

Snoqualmie Pass expects almost 3 new feet of snow by Monday. The mountain ski patrol crew has set the risk of avalanches in the back country to "high".

Matt Leitzinger, 22, skied near the Alpental lifts Friday night, but it was his first back country trip a year ago that changed everything.

"Ever since then, I've been addicted," he said.

It took only a few months, however, for Leitzinger to realize the danger that accompanies the beauty.

"I blacked out midway down a run and went into a rock field. Broke 16 bones. Lacerated my kidney and lung," he remembered.

After 5 months and 5 day, the skier returned to Washington's ungroomed trails, drawn by the untouched majesty but now humbled by its power.

"Nobody's risking it this weekend," he said. "Right now the conditions are terrible."

Alpental's back country trails are closed due to high avalanche risk. As new snowfall arrives this weekend, the danger will only increase.

"There were some fracture lines from slab avalanches up on that peak there," explained Washington State Highways Avalanche Control Supervisor John Stimberis. "Throughout this week, we've had quite a bit of natural avalanche activity in surrounding peaks here."

Because of erratic temperatures, wind, and rain, the late snowfall will land on unstable layers of ice and snow.

But, crews are concerned that thrill-seekers may only see the opportunity to make fresh tracks in the back country.

"Everybody's chomping at the bit. They're wanting to get out and get some of that powder," explained Tim Tietjen.

Tietjen shoots video for TheSnowTroopers.Com and filmed the conditions outside the groomed trails today.  He calls the current snow "bean bag" snow.

"Think of that beanbag snow... as ball bearings," Tietjen explained. "So that [new] snow falls on that. It does not adhere to what was under there."

The most like danger is a slab avalanche in the back country where crews patrol boundaries for safety.

"To us assessing that snow, have someone come in above us and potentially trigger an avalanche on us - it's a dangerous situation," Stimberis said.

Once a fringe element, enjoying winter sports out-of-bounds continues to draw heavier crowds as the back country's moved to the foreground of snow sports.

"Just having to go big and prove yourself over everybody else," Leitzinger said. "Push the limits on top of the risks we already have out here, it's just poking a dragon."

This weekend, Alpental is hosting Vertfest, a back country festival, so that interested snow sport enthusiasts can learn more about how to engage in the activity safely. For more information, visit:

http://www.summit-at-snoqualmie.com/events/subaru-vertfest-alpental

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