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Originally published April 13, 2013 at 8:18 PM | Page modified April 15, 2013 at 11:44 AM

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Avalanches in Snoqualmie leave snowshoer missing

At least one person was missing and three hurt in two avalanches near Snoqualmie Pass on Saturday.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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SNOQUALMIE PASS — Officials called off their search Saturday night for a missing snowshoer caught in an avalanche at Snoqualmie Pass, while a second avalanche, nearby, had rescuers bringing people off the mountain long after darkness fell.

The two avalanches had rescuers from the King County Sheriff’s Office scrambling for most of the day as they confronted initial reports that as many as three people might be missing.

But by late evening, much of the confusion had cleared. One snowshoer remained unaccounted for, but all others had been found.

The first avalanche took place at noon on Granite Mountain, near Interstate 90’s Exit 47. The second hit a half-hour later on Red Mountain, a few miles east.

Officials knew for sure that a man was missing at the Granite Mountain site, where an avalanche caught three snowshoers, all from South King County, and carried them 1,279 feet at a top speed of 53 mph, said Sgt. Katie Larson of the King County Sheriff’s Office. That level of detail was available because at least one snowshoer was outfitted with GPS.

Two injured men, in their 30s, emerged from the snow, but their companion did not, Larson said.

About 50 rescuers with dog teams searched for the man, who is about 60. But they battled “horrible” conditions, Larson said, and wound up suspending the search sometime around 8 p.m.

At the Red Mountain site, matters remained confusing late into the day, with officials unsure whether one or possibly more snowshoers remained buried in the snow.

The confusion came in part from a language barrier between search-and-rescue officials and a group of snowshoers, of Asian descent, who had been caught in the avalanche.

On Red Mountain, a woman was hiking with her dog near that group of 12 snowshoers when the avalanche struck, sheriff’s Deputy E.R. Gagnon said. The snowshoers, who were at about 4,800 feet, realized the woman was missing when the dog, alone, came up to them afterward.

Members of the group found the woman under about 6 feet of snow, Gagnon said. She was conscious but experiencing hypothermia.

The avalanche split up the group of 12, with four making it off the mountain as of 5 p.m. Searchers made their way toward the remaining eight snowshoers — and the injured woman — as evening approached, reaching them before 8 p.m.

The rescuers anticipated that it would take about two hours to get the eight snowshoers off the mountain. But sheriff’s officials said it could take four hours — or until close to midnight — before they would be able to bring down the hypothermic woman, who was being carried on a litter.

Won Shin, 56, of Mukilteo, was among the four who made it off the mountain first. He said that when the avalanche hit, he suddenly saw snow all around him.

“The only thing I thought about was just, ‘Get out of here,’ ” he said. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

He said those in his group of four were lucky because they were close to trees that broke the avalanche’s impact.

The 12 friends are experienced snowshoers who make it into the mountains about every week, he said.

The two snowshoers who were with the missing man on Granite Mountain suffered non-life-threatening shoulder and hamstring injuries, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The last avalanche fatalities occurred in February 2012 when four were killed at Stevens Pass and near the Summit at Snoqualmie, Larson said.

She said avalanches can be common this time of year.

“Whenever you have warm weather and then cold weather and snow, it can be bad,” she said.

Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute, which offers avalanche consulting and safety training, said storm conditions had been expected in the mountains this weekend.

“This was not a freak spring storm that comes out of nowhere,” said Baugher, who is also Ski Patrol director at Crystal Mountain Resort. “It’s a well-forecasted storm. It was all available to look at.”

He said the forecast for avalanches at Snoqualmie was “high” Saturday.

Both his ski patrol at Crystal Mountain and its counterpart at the Snoqualmie Pass ski resort did routine avalanche control Saturday morning. They used small explosives and “ski cutting” to release slabs of snow that might slide and create an avalanche.

The conditions resulted from lots of new snow, enhanced at Snoqualmie Pass by the Puget Sound convergence-zone weather pattern.

“Because of the cold temperatures, the snow underneath is relatively well frozen and stable,” Baugher said. “But there’s a poor bond between the new snow coming down and old snow, which is very hard and slippery. That produces soft slabs of very sensitive snow.”

He said, “They have definitely got high hazards at Snoqualmie. It’s set up for human-triggered avalanches.” In particular, “Granite Mountain has a history of avalanches, and they often happen later in the season,” Baugher said.

“A lot of people plan by the calendar. Late in the season, people expect it to be spring and start planning outings they might not do in the winter,” Baugher said. “But this is true winter conditions. It’s just occurring in the spring.”

In the 15 years before this winter, there were 46 avalanche fatalities in the Northwest, according to statistics compiled by the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. Most occurred in December through February, with only four deaths in April.

This winter, the center recorded two previous avalanche accidents in the Pacific Northwest. In the first, last November, some snowmobiles were buried but no one was hurt. In December, at Crystal Mountain, three skiers were caught in an avalanche, but all escaped serious injury.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ken Armstrong contributed to this report. Brian M. Rosenthal: 360-236-8267 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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