SEATTLE — Authorities on Wednesday publicly identified the three climbers killed days earlier in a Central Cascades avalanche that highlights the exceptional risk of alpine climbing in the middle of winter.
The Chelan County Sheriff’s Office identified the climbers killed on Colchuck Peak as Seong Cho, 54, of Connecticut; Jeannie Lee, 60, of New York; and Yun Park, 66, of New Jersey. Their bodies remain at the scene.
Avalanche experts deployed to the area Wednesday to assess the current hazard, according to the Sheriff’s Office. A sheriff’s sergeant previously said authorities had no plans to recover the bodies until the scene is deemed safe and the weather improves.
The three climbers were among a group of six ascending a steep gully known as a couloir when the lead climber triggered the avalanche, Washington’s deadliest since at least 2014. The slide caught four climbers; Cho, Lee and Park were killed and a 56-year-old man from New York survived.
The party had been attempting to ascend the peak via its northeast couloir, a 1,200-vertical-feet narrow passageway rising out of the mountain’s namesake glacier that’s visible from Colchuck Lake, a popular summer hiking destination.
While it takes only standard hiking equipment to reach the lake during the summer months, ascending Colchuck Peak is no pedestrian endeavor in any season — particularly in winter. Mountain conditions can change daily and even hourly, especially midwinter, and difficult mountaineering routes are more commonly tackled in spring and summer when the weather is more favorable with clear, sunny conditions and avalanche risk has largely subsided for the season.
To climb the peak in winter, backcountry travelers must walk 3.6 miles on a snow-covered road before even reaching the trailhead, then continue 4 miles to the lake.
From there, climbers trek to the open snowfields on the Colchuck Glacier and eventually ascend into the gully, which ranges in width from 50 feet to a narrow choke just 10 feet wide, according to SummitPost, an online climbing index and forum.
Climbing the route requires technical skills and equipment for ascending snow and ice, as well as ropes and harnesses for possible rock climbing and rappelling. The couloir has a slope of between 35 and 45 degrees, making it prime avalanche terrain.
John Race, owner of Northwest Mountain School, a guiding outfit based in Leavenworth, was “surprised” to hear that a large party attempted the route midwinter given the snow and weather conditions.
“As a guide of 34 years, hearing someone was on that route was kind of a wow moment,” he said. “It just seems like an incredibly aggressive route choice. I can say with great confidence that’s not a route that we would ever guide with six people.”
He said the route is best for maximum two climbers due to the likelihood of loose ice and rock falling as the climbers ascend.
While little is known about the group and its plans, Race speculated that their coming from out of state on a holiday weekend meant they had a preplanned commitment to climb, even if conditions were less than ideal.
Northwest Avalanche Center forecasters had predicted a “moderate” risk of avalanches above the tree line Sunday in the zone where Colchuck Peak is located, with the danger increasing throughout the day due to high winds.
“There are often windows in the winter when you can climb these things, but sometimes that might not appear for an entire winter. It’s really challenging when you decide a month in advance to climb a specific route on a specific day — it’s a recipe for disaster,” Race said. “The size of the group, lack of communication equipment, and the fact that they were climbing on Sunday [of a holiday weekend] are huge red flags.”
Seattle resident Jason Niedermyer said he attempted to climb the route in February 2022 but did not reach the top due to navigational challenges. He encountered more ice than snow as he and his partner made the climb during a relative dry spell.
“A route like this can vary night and day depending on the conditions of the snow, ice and weather around you,” he said.
Niedermyer described the route at points as “very tight” with “steep, almost vertical walls made of granite” on either side. He and his partner wore crampons on their boots and carried two ice tools, a type of ice ax used by climbers to ascend steep sections.
Based on the preliminary accident report, which indicated that the climbers triggered an avalanche about 500 vertical feet above the base of the route, Niedermyer speculated that the consequences of a fall would be severe.
“If you were to get caught in that avalanche and swept down that couloir, you would encounter hazardous and highly consequential terrain like vertical rock that constricts into a tight and unforgiving chokepoint,” he said. “You would probably accelerate and make contact with sharp rocks with enough force and velocity to do a lot of damage.”
The deaths are the first in a Washington avalanche this winter, according to the Northwest Avalanche Center, as well as the state’s deadliest such incident since at least 2014 — when two guides and four clients died on Mount Rainier after falling more than 3,000 feet. Experts say they likely were swept down by an avalanche.
The avalanche also appears to be the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2020-21 season, when four people were killed in an avalanche in Utah’s backcountry, according to a database that tracks avalanche accidents. That season, three climbers were killed in an Alaska avalanche, and three died in a Colorado avalanche.
Anyone venturing into backcountry terrain in the Cascades during winter should consult the daily avalanche forecast at nwac.us while making their travel plans.