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Snowboarder escapes death thanks to small, grabbable tree

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Remnants of an 8-12 ft slide in the backcountry of Mount Baker. // Courtesy of Calvin Shillington

By Makani Falkin

Mount Baker’s backcountry is a paradise for skiers and snowboarders, but even paradise can be deadly. A snowboarder triggered an avalanche on Dec. 28, 2020 in the backcountry of Mount Baker Ski Area, bringing the rider down with it. Bellingham skiers and snowboarders should use caution when traveling in the dangerous backcountry of Mount Baker. 

The unknown snowboarder grabbed onto a small tree while being dragged down the mountain and was left seemingly unharmed.

Aveen Ploeg, a 26-year-old Mount Baker local and skier originally from Baltimore, witnessed the avalanche firsthand.

“We knew it was a risky day, a lot of fresh snow was over that unstable Dec. 21 layer,” Ploeg said. “When we saw the entire face break huge, we weren’t surprised it broke. But we were super scared for that guy because we thought we were watching him die.”

Like many mountains in Washington, Mount Baker’s backcountry proves extremely dangerous when there is lots of fresh snow or when the snowpack is unstable.

Backcountry is unmaintained terrain outside of a ski area boundary. This terrain is sought after by skiers and snowboarders who have a craving for powder or fresh snow that is untouched.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 21 people have died as of Feb. 7 in avalanche accidents across the U.S. since Jan. 30.

At Mount Baker, there has been an increase of avalanches and slab breaks. Slab breaks are layers of snow that break off from the rest of the snowpack and slide as one huge piece due to being heavier and looser than the rest of the surrounding snow.

“Mount Baker is especially dangerous compared to other areas in Washington simply because of the sheer amount of moisture we receive,” said Zack McGill, an employee of Baker Mountain Guides in Bellingham.  

“Mount Baker Ski Area sitting where it does is guaranteed to get precipitation no matter which direction a storm comes from,” McGill said. “Sometimes that comes as rain, but it’s not uncommon for it to be snowing five inches an hour later. This can result in rapidly rising avalanche conditions.”

These conditions result in many skiers getting hurt in the backcountry.

Christopher Harris is a 29-year-old helicopter crew chief and mountain rescue technician who knows the difficulty of saving people from the backcountry.

“With avalanche rescue, everything is time-sensitive,” Harris said. “As the person remains under the snow for longer amounts of time, the chance of survival decreases extremely. Backcountry travel in avalanche terrain should be conducted in a group in case of an avalanche event.”
The Northwest Avalanche Center posts daily information regarding the danger levels of Mount Baker’s backcountry. This information is also posted on Mount Baker’s website.


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