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Unprecedented snowpack causing summer danger for hikers in Washington

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SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. – The official start of summer is being plagued by a never-ending winter, say rescue workers in Snohomish County.

Unprecedented snowpack is causing dangerous conditions on trails in the mountains, and that’s pouring into local rivers. Rescuers said they don’t see it going away; in fact, they’re preparing it to last all season.

“The hiker got into the parking lot, everything looked fine, the weather was nice, then got up above the snowline,” said Randy Fay, Snohomish County Search and Rescue president. Fay was describing a rescue operation from Monday, the fifth rescue to the same location in two weeks.

“They’re expecting to find conditions that they would normally see this time of year, but now they’re getting up and they are finding snow where they hadn’t had to deal with snow before, and there’s still a lot of trees down on trails,” he said.

What starts off as 70 degrees and sunny at the base of Mount Pilchuck turns into blistering winds and ice at the top.

“If you go in in the afternoon, that snow is nice and mushy and easy to walk on. If you then wait for a while to come out, that snow then freezes up and then all that snowmelt is on the rocks, on the roots and it all gets very slippery,” he said. “We can expect to see snow on these north sides of these slopes, probably the entire season this year.”

The hiker rescued on Monday was in shorts when she hurt her leg on the ice and needed help descending. Rescuers said she did not stand a chance come nightfall, without hiking safety essentials.

“This will be our busiest year ever. Each year that goes by is our busiest year ever,” said Bree Loewen, Seattle Mountain Rescue volunteer. “Last year we had a six percent increase in rescues, and we’ve had a 26 percent increase in the last five years.”

Seattle Mountain Rescue, like Snohomish SAR, runs on volunteers and donations. Without tax dollars supplementing their services, the extra rescues can add up.

“If we were to charge for service, people wouldn’t be as willing to ask for help until things go really bad,” said Loewen. She said it’s a good thing that their services are free. However, multiple missions can tax volunteers.

“On the Sloane peak mission, we burned a thousand volunteer hours over those two days,” said Fay. One rescue operation can throw off a search and rescue budget for the year, and water rescues are only beginning to ramp up.

“It complicates things for us,” said Fay. He said he’s hoping hikers will help them by helping themselves. Pack essentials like food and water for the possibility of an overnight stay, even if you’re planning on a four hour hike.

“Even if they are experienced backpackers, they have it in their mind, ‘I am going to go out for four to five hours and I am done, what could happen?’ It happens, stuff just happens,” he said.