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Three Climbers Killed in Avalanche Near Leavenworth

It was the deadliest accident of the winter so far in the U.S.

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At approximately 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 19, three climbers were killed in a slab avalanche on Colchuck Peak (8,705ft) near Leavenworth, WA. The victims were identified as Seong Cho, 54, Jeannie Less, 60, and Yun Park, 66—all of whom were visiting from the East Coast.

The climbers were part of an unroped six-person team attempting the Northeast Couloir, a 1,500-foot grade II snow climb. The avalanche was triggered by the lead climber, and it swept four members of the team 500 feet down the narrow rocky chute. None of the victims were buried, but three of them died of trauma incurred during their fall. The fourth climber escaped with non-life threatening injuries to their lower extremities. The two climbers who were not caught in the avalanche helped the injured climber back to their basecamp above Colchuck Lake 1,000 feet below, where another member of the party, having opted out of the climb, met them. Within the hour, three more avalanches crashed down the Northeast Couloir, burying two of the three bodies. 

Authorities were notified of the accident at 8:00 a.m. the following morning, when the seventh member of the party, having hiked the five snowy miles back to the road, finally managed to contact the sheriff’s department. Some two dozen rescuers proceeded to the accident site, but avalanche conditions made body retrieval unsafe.

Details about the exact nature and cause of the avalanche are still emerging, but we do know that on February 19, the Northwest Avalanche Center’s avalanche forecast for the Colchuck Peak area (part of their East Central region) was “moderate.” That day’s forecast did note, however, that there was significant wind-slab risk at higher elevations and the avalanche hazard would spike by that evening: from “moderate” through “considerable” to “high.” But because the climbers had been in the backcountry for multiple days and were not traveling with devices capable of connecting to satellite internet, they did not have access to updated snow conditions. None of the climbers, according to UPI, had any formal avalanche training, and none were carrying beacons.

Colchuck Peak and the lower sections of the Northeast Couloir which veers sharply to the right halfway up the face. (Photo: Chelan County Sheriff’s Office)

Speaking with the Seattle Times, John Race, a Leavenworth-based guide and the owner of Northwest Mountain School, was disturbed that such a large party would attempt the couloir, which is better suited for small parties given the narrowness of the chute and likelihood of rock and icefall.  “As a guide of 34 years, hearing someone was on that route was kind of a wow moment. It just seems like such an incredibly aggressive route choice. I can say with confidence that’s not a route that we would ever guide with six people.”

Speaking to K5 News,Tyler Severy, a member of the Washington Mountain Rescue Association, summed it up by saying, “It was an absolute[ly] terrible weekend to be in the mountains.”

The Colchuck Peak avalanche is the deadliest avalanche incident to date in the 2022-2023 season in the United States, which has claimed nine lives so far, and the deadliest in Washington State since 2014, when six people died in a single slide on Mt. Rainier. 

But avalanche conditions in the Western Canada have also been especially tricky of late. On February 17, Gripped reported that an additional nine people had died in avalanches in Western Canada so far this year, including several highly experienced backcountry travelers.

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