Snow-starved over the past four months, Central Oregonians may be lured into the backcountry by the recent run of snowstorms.
But before they go, they should be wary of the avalanche danger posed by the fluctuating weather and be prepared for avalanches.
“It is really a time to keep an eye out when we have unsettled weather like this,” said Chris Sabo, trails specialist with the Deschutes National Forest.
Grim reminders of the deadly potential of avalanches came from around the West over the past week, with six people killed by snow slides.
A skier and a guide were killed by an avalanche in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains on Tuesday. Avalanches also killed two people early this week in Colorado and two others over the weekend in Utah.
The Seattle-based Northwest Avalanche Center, which issues avalanche warnings for the Cascades in Washington and northern Oregon, had midrange “considerable” warnings out Wednesday afternoon for mountains around the Northwest. Although the warnings don’t cover Central Oregon, Sabo said they show there probably is danger here, too.
Avalanche danger comes from a mix of temperatures from cold to warm, intense snow and rain and lots of wind, said Trevor Miller, board member for the Central Oregon Avalanche Association.
“We are experiencing a lot of those common denominators,” Miller said.
This weekend could be a busy one in the Central Oregon backcountry, with many people having a three-day weekend for President’s Day, Sabo said. He said the holiday weekend can be one of the biggest weekends of the winter at sno-parks in the Deschutes National Forest, the gateways to the backcountry near Bend.
Close to Bend, a skier in the Tumalo Mountain bowl was caught in an avalanche Saturday morning, Miller said. He said the skier was buried knee-deep in snow and was able to free himself.
The skier reported the avalanche on the Central Oregon Avalanche Association website. The Bend-based nonprofit, which started about four years ago, takes in reports of avalanches and avalanche danger, but doesn’t issue warnings as do federally supported forecasting centers, such as the Northwest Avalanche Center.
Sabo said anyone thinking about heading into the backcountry on skis, snowshoes or a snowmobile, should stay away from avalanche terrain while the weather trend persists. Avalanche terrain is slopes of 30 to 45 degrees, usually clear of trees. Examples are the Broken Top bowl and the Tumalo Mountain bowl.
Mount Bachelor also has avalanche terrain, but the ski patrol at the Mt. Bachelor ski area keeps a watch on the likely avalanche spots in the 36,000 acres the ski area covers, said Mt. Bachelor ski patroller Matt Baldwin. When there is heavy buildup of snow, they use explosives to trigger avalanches early in the day.
“A lot of it is done before the lifts open,” he said.
The ski patrol uses about 500 to 1,000 pounds of explosives each year, Baldwin said.
In case there is an avalanche at Mt. Bachelor during the day, Baldwin said the ski patrol has “avalanche dogs,” trained to find people buried in the snow. There are two trained dogs and two puppies in training.
“Basically they are using their nose,” he said. “… and when they find a scent they start digging.”
While the dogs haven’t yet found any buried skiers or snowboarders, they have been used to check whether an avalanche has trapped anyone.
There isn’t a ski patrol in the backcountry, so Sabo and Miller recommended anyone recreating in the snow there should bring avalanche safety gear — a beacon, a probe and a shovel. And they should know how to use the tools.
The Central Oregon Avalanche Association hosts regular “Know before you go” trainings, with the next session coming up Wednesday. Baldwin added that each person in a backcountry outing party should have the safety gear.
Avalanche danger in Central Oregon is likely to remain for the near future, with more snow and rain in the forecast.
Temperatures also will continue to fluctuate, with a warm front coming Friday and then more cold weather, said Marilyn Lohmann, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Pendleton. The snow level will vary as a result, moving from around 4,500 feet to 6,000 feet and then back down.
“Snow levels are going to be kind of up and down a little bit,” she said.
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