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Deadly Crystal Mountain avalanche highlights importance of backcountry preparedness

Four people were buried in the avalanche. Three dug themselves out. The fourth was found but wasn't breathing.

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — The Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) is investigating a deadly avalanche that happened on Crystal Mountain Saturday. One man was killed, and five other skiers had to pull themselves to safety.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Office said the group of six was headed up the Silver Basin area of Crystal Mountain and hoping to ski down when the avalanche hit. Four of the six skiers were buried, and three dug themselves out. The fourth, a 66-year-old man, was found but wasn't breathing.

The skiers took several precautions for the trip. They traveled in a group, brought backcountry gear like a shovel and beacon, and checked the NWAC's forecast.

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The avalanche risk for the day was rated a three on the five-point Avalanche Danger Scale, which means there's a "considerable" risk for an avalanche. NWAC representatives said that is when most avalanche accidents occur. 

"The guidelines are there to help us in some of the decision making but you have to grade that level of risk with your level of training, your level of comfort, your athletic skill, the ability of your entire group," said Scott Waller, a member of King County Search and Rescue's Ski Patrol Rescue Team.

Waller has built hundreds of signs he places at trailheads around the world. The signs read in big letters, "Are you beeping?" It's a reminder for people to check to make sure their beacon device is working. The signs list additional reminders, and some are specific to the trail, like a QR Code to find a trail's weather forecast.

"It's really that last reminder to check the forecast, make sure your tools are ready, and you - as a group - that you're all on the same page about what happens and what are the consequences," said Waller.

Exploring the backcountry when hiking, skiing or snowmobiling always comes with a risk. Waller's signs help people about to head out, but it's the preparations days and months before that are just as important.

"In the early season, dust off the books, get out the training materials, refresh, practice, practice, practice," said Waller.