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Rescues jump as warm weather lures unprepared hikers; 2 trails seem trickiest

By Patricia Madej
The Seattle Times
Record warm weather earlier this year has lured more hikers than ever to the outdoors, contributing to a 30 percent increase in search-and-rescue missions in King County’s hiking areas.

 

The record-setting warm weather earlier this year hasn’t been pleasant for everyone — it’s partially to blame for a 30 percent jump in search-and-rescue missions on King County’s many hiking trails.

While these missions in King County can range anywhere from 110 to 150 a year, the 76 through June 6 is a much higher number than usual, said Larry Colagiovanni, chairman of Seattle Mountain Rescue, a volunteer group of about 70 and one of the county’s eight rescue teams, which work closely with the King County Sheriff’s Office.

That’s up from 59 through the same time last year, and 43 the year before.

Most involve hikers who depart without giving themselves enough time and run into nightfall without a headlamp, or who lose their footing and twist an ankle.

What’s different this year has been the unseasonably warm weather, causing people to flock to the trails who may not realize the routes can still be snow-covered and slippery, or that the weather can vary so much by altitude.

“It’s really not that surprising to me, I think, just given the amount of snow we got this year and how long that takes to melt out,” Colagiovanni said. “And Seattle keeps growing in terms of people, and we’re seeing more folks head out to the trails.”

It was a normal to more-severe-than-normal winter, said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. Snoqualmie Pass saw more than 400 inches of snow, up from just 104 inches in 2014-15, according to the state Department of Transportation.

And winter was followed by a very hot spring.

“It’s been the warmest on record,” Burg said. “I don’t know (about ever) — maybe Moses might have complained.”

Burg said many mountain hikers don’t take drops in temperatures or high wind gusts into consideration before they go.

“People aren’t prepared for that because they think since it’s so nice, it’ll be a nice day up the mountain,” he said.

The increase in search missions comes at a time when the eight units of King County Search and Rescue are threatened by a proposed $3.8 million Sheriff’s Office budget cut due to looming shortfalls facing county government over the next two years.

The cuts could ground Sheriff’s Office search-and-rescue helicopters and curtail other programs and equipment the volunteer teams rely on for their missions.

“We think they’re an essential service,” said Glenn Wallace, president of King County Search and Rescue. “King County’s a really big county, and everyone’s active and outdoorsy.”

Colagiovanni said Mailbox Peak and Rattlesnake Ledge have been big problem areas, both for their popularity and sometimes tricky routes. Seven hikers so far this year were rescued along Mailbox Peak, and six on Rattlesnake Ledge, all needing help with injuries or direction.

He stressed that hikers should check weather conditions before heading out on the trail, as well as leave a detailed plan with family or friends. He also said hikers should consider buying a spot locator or personal locator beacon, since cellphones aren’t always reliable.

Kindra Ramos, director of communications and outreach for the Washington Trails Association, said that while she doesn’t have exact numbers for how many people are on the trails, she can say that traffic on the group’s website has doubled since 2014, and trip reports increased 40 percent between 2014 and 2015.

“The population is growing and we live in such an amazing area that people want to be out there exploring, and that’s part of being a Washingtonian,” she said.

 

Hiking safety

Hiking can be dangerous at times. Here are five tips from the Washington Trails Association for going prepared and staying safe:

1. Check the latest trail conditions: Read how others have fared when choosing a hike. Contact the local ranger station for current conditions.
2. Let someone know where you’re going: Let them know your intended destination and when you plan to return, and update them if plans change.
3. Pack the 10 Essentials:
  • Topographic map
  • Compass
  • Water and a way to purify it
  • Extra food
  • Rain gear and warm clothing
  • Fire starter and matches
  • Sun protection
  • Pocketknife
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
An emergency shelter, hiking poles, ice ax and snowshoes are also worth considering, depending on the season and where you’re going.
4. Watch the weather forecast: Conditions can change minute by minute. Don’t force a hike. If the conditions aren’t right, save it for another day.
5. Beware of hunters: Wear orange clothing and make noise while you hike if you’re traveling in hunting zones during hunting season.
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