Snowpack twice as deep as normal

CASHMERE – As Shane Wood steered a raft into rapids known as Rock and Roll, he couldn’t help but point out that this ride down the Wenatchee River was just the beginning.

“Thanks to the snowpack, it ought to be a great year for rafting all over the state this summer,” said Wood, a guide for Federal Way’s Wildwater River Tours.

As excited as whitewater rafters are about a snowpack that is an average of 204 percent of normal statewide, those itching to enjoy outdoor pursuits such as high-country hiking aren’t so happy.

Memorial Day weekend typically marks the beginning of the summer recreation season, but recreationists are more likely to find conditions in the mountains that seem like winter.

At Mount Rainier National Park, one of the most popular campsites, Cougar Rock, will not open this weekend, and many popular trails are buried in snow. The snowpack there is 169 percent of normal, said chief ranger Chuck Young.

“People are coming up here expecting to take a nice long hike, but they don’t realize it’s still winter conditions,” ranger Sarah Pigeon said.

Paul Werth of Weather Research and Consulting Services says people should expect their favorite trails, forest service roads and campgrounds to melt out about three weeks to a month later than normal. Conversely, he expects the whitewater rafting season to last a month longer than usual.

“Looking back at NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) records as far back as the early ’80s, this is as heavy a snowpack as we have seen,” Werth said. “And that’s either good news or bad news depending on what you like to do.”

Crystal Mountain Resort is relishing the snowfall. The ski area announced Friday that it passed 600 inches of snow for the season for the first time in its 53-year history. The old record of 596 inches was set in 1999 when they skied until July 14. The resort averages 385 inches of snow per year.

As of Friday, the ski area had a 139-inch base in Green Valley.

“It’s not even summer conditions,” resort spokeswoman Tiana Enger said. “I’d say it’s more like spr-inter – spring and winter.”

The ski area will have four chairlifts running this weekend, and it plans to offer skiing as long as conditions permit. The resort will be open on weekends (including this one) before returning to daily operations June 17. With its new $8 million gondola, this is the first year of summer operations at Crystal and, Enger said, “we envisioned people hiking around among the wildflowers.”

“Maybe that will happen in late summer,” Enger said.

Rainier’s wildflowers might not bloom until late August, Pigeon said.

Young says hikers should not take the snow lightly. From route finding, to thin snow bridges over creeks, to the potential for avalanche, the heavy snowpack presents potential hazards.

“One of the big fears is that when people venture out in the snow, unless they have really good direction-finding skills, GPS, map and compass, they could get lost very easily,” Young said.

On Friday, rangers had to carry ice axes hiking to Comet Falls, a trail typically suited to families. And the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center released a statement warning of an increased likelihood of avalanche in the mountains this weekend.

“The snow is about a month behind normal in terms of stabilization and consolidation,” said Garth Gerber of the NWAC. “There is a greater chance of a wet snow avalanche right now.”

Lingering snow also is likely to delay the discovery of winter damage to trails and backcountry campsites, Young said.

“There is typically damage every winter,” Young said. “Hopefully, as the snow melts, we will be able to stay one step ahead of the public.”

However, Werth warns, there could be more damage to come if the snowpack melts too fast.

“If it gets really warm, you could see trails and forest roads and culverts washed out,” Werth said. “At this point, a slow melt is better than a rapid one.”

That’s precisely what Shane Wood is hoping for. His livelihood depends on the snowpack. When he isn’t working as a river guide, he’s serving on the ski patrol at Mount Hood Meadows.

“Some years are definitely better than others,” Wood said. “And this year might be the best.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497