- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

VERLOT, Wash. (AP) - The trial leading to the Big Four Ice Caves will likely reopen next year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. But the organization is planning to bring together trail builders, landscape architects and social scientists to look for ways to keep hikers out of the deadly caves.

The trail has been closed since July 6, when rock and ice fell and killed 34-year-old Annalisa Santana of California. Five other people were injured, including her brother, a Lynnwood resident who died of his injuries in October.

The snow and ice formation about 70 miles northeast of Seattle is the most popular hiking attracting in the Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, attracting thousands of visitors each year, reported The Everett Herald (http://bit.ly/1QpnQ32 ).

But the caves can be dangerous, and there have been three deaths from collapsing ice in the past five years.

“We are still trying to sort out how we proceed forward,” said Peter Forbes, district ranger for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest’s half-million acre Darrington Ranger District. “I’m hoping we can open it by next summer.”

Researchers and trail experts are expected to hike the trail and make suggestions first.

“The landscape up there would allow us some relocation of the trail,” explained Forbes. “If we identify something we can do, we have to figure out how are we going to fund it.”

This year was particularly dangerous for ice cave visitors. The caves are at the bottom of Big Four Mountain and form from compressed, melting avalanche debris. Because 2015 saw limited snowpack and hot, dry weather, sections of the caves were collapsing by May.

After closing the trail in July, the Forest Service asked for feedback about how to continue. Most of the more than 180 responses asked that the trail remain open.

There are also efforts underway to improve emergency response times to the caves, where there is no cell phone reception. The trail is 1.1 miles long and it’s another 14.5 mile hike to telephone service at the Verlot ranger station.

The Forest Service is planning on installing a land-line telephone at Camp Silverton so visitors don’t have to walk quite as far to make 911 calls.

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Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldnet.com

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