Woman Dies At Big Four Ice Caves -- Arch Collapses, Buries Her During Outing With Family

A Bothell woman was killed yesterday when collapsing ice at the Big Four Ice Caves fell on her.

Catherine Stockton Shields, 27, was with her husband and his parents, visiting the ice caves off Mountain Loop Highway about 25 miles east of Granite Falls. Around noon, an ice arch at one of the caves' main entrances collapsed, said Jan Jorgensen, Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman.

Shields was buried by the ice and suffered massive internal and head injuries and several broken bones, Jorgensen said.

After Shields was pulled out, her husband and Dr. Lee Leichtling, hiking with his family, performed CPR on her, but she was declared dead at the scene.

Her father-in-law suffered minor injuries, and her husband had trouble breathing after realizing what had happened. The two men were treated at Providence General Medical Center in Everett and released.

Leichtling said Shields' husband told him, "This was one of her favorite places in all of nature, and she said she wished she could be here forever." Shields, a Birmingham, Ala., native who taught at a day camp at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, said those words a few minutes before the accident.

"And (her husband) looked at me and said how fortunate she was, that so few people get their wishes granted," Leichtling recalled.

The caves, formed by water and wind that run through the remnant of an old glacier at the foot of Big Four Mountain, crumble often. Signs warning "Ice Caves are Hazardous; Do Not Enter" are posted in several spots along the popular hike, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Yet the cool breeze that spills from the caverns lures many summer hikers. Two boys received cuts when ice fell on them when they ventured inside in 1996. The previous year, a 28-year-old woman was buried under 6 feet of ice and snow. She suffered cuts to her head.

The caves are dangerous in winter, too. In January 1992, a pregnant woman was thrown 300 feet after her companions entered the caves and an avalanche slid down and sealed them inside. She suffered minor injuries, and her friends had to dig themselves out.

"It's never a good time" to go inside, said Ron DeHart, a spokesman for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

For all the injuries, however, DeHart said this was the only fatality in recent history, if ever.

The trail remained closed this morning as the accident was investigated. The Forest Service hadn't decided when the trail would reopen, DeHart said.

Authorities hoped the tragedy would remind others to keep their distance from the caves, but they weren't confident.

"This has happened before, and it will happen again," Jorgensen said.