The trail to the Big Four Ice Caves, closed since a deadly collapse of the caves in July, is likely to reopen this spring with updated warning signs and a winter’s worth of new snow from which the caves could reform.
The U.S. Forest Service is finishing a risk assessment for the ice caves, the most visited hiking destination in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Thousands of hikers follow the trail every summer to the foot of Big Four Mountain, where packed snow from winter avalanches accumulates and lasts, sheltered in the shade of the mountain. As the weather warms in the spring and summer, meltwater and warm air currents carve caverns into the compressed snow.
Anna Santana, 34, of Moreno Valley, California, and her brother, David Santana, 25, of Lynnwood, were killed by the July 6 collapse at the ice cave. Anna Santana died immediately of blunt force trauma; David Santana died Oct. 9 from his injuries.
Altogether, four people have died at the ice caves since 1998: Grace Tam, 11, of Marysville, died in 2010 when a chunk of ice broke off and hit her as she stood 20 feet away; and Catherine Shields, 27, of Bothell, died in 1998 when snow and ice at the mouth of the caves fell on her.
A document reviewing risks and possible safety measures is in the works, said Peter Forbes, Darrington district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service.
“It started a long time ago,” Forbes said. “There’s been a progression with each unfortunate accident in revisiting it and looking at what happened and what we could do better.”
After the most recent deaths, new signs were ordered for the trailhead. There have been warnings and safety messages there in the past, Forbes said, but they were mixed with a lot of other trail information. The new signs make more visible the warnings about unstable snow and ice. The Forest Service also is looking at whether and where there should be more signs along the trail.
Longer term, there has been talk of rerouting the end of the trail farther from the ice caves. One proposal would veer left toward a beaver pond that could be turned into an interpretive site with information about habitats and wildlife. A second option would turn right toward a knoll where people can admire the caves from a distance.
Both options would require money for environmental studies and labor, Forbes said.
For now, the plan is to put up the new signs and open the trail this spring. Forbes expects it will open when the Mountain Loop Highway does. The road is closed at the Deer Creek gate, where it shuts every winter, about 12 miles past Verlot. It usually reopens mid-May, depending on the weather and any damage along the route.
There are winter recreation sites near Deer Creek and along the open portion of the Loop, Forbes said. Until the gate is open, people shouldn’t venture up toward places like the Big Four Ice Caves. It’s avalanche season.
In planning for reopening the trail, he’s talked one-on-one with experts but wants to bring them together to share ideas. Among the people he’d like to talk with are Washington Trails Association workers, search and rescue volunteers, Snohomish County tourism advocates, and city leaders in Granite Falls and Darrington. Forbes hopes to have those meetings in March.
There’s no notable progress toward setting up an emergency landline closer to the ice caves. Cell phones don’t have service that far up the Loop and the nearest landline is at the Verlot ranger station. Officials would like to put a phone at Camp Silverton, nine miles closer to the trailhead than Verlot.
Like any other natural phenomenon, ice caves are unpredictable. Last summer, they were unusually fragile due to low snowpack and long stretches of hot weather. By summer’s end, the caves had collapsed completely.
“With the snow we’ve been getting this year, there is probably a big pile of snow up there right now,” Forbes said.
Natural processes are likely to recreate the ice caves in the spring.