Experienced skiers set off two avalanches
Ryan Summerlin January 29, 2013
Experienced backcountry skiers set off two avalanches Monday, Jan. 28 in Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
No one was injured but the incidents highlight the avalanche danger throughout the Wasatch Front and Back posed by recent weather conditions.
"It does lend credence to the tricky nature of the snowpack right now, and avalanche dangers will be increasingly tricky and increasingly dangerous as the storm unfolds," said Utah Avalanche Center spokesman Craig Gordon. "I expect the special avalanche advisory to be bumped up to a warning Wednesday. The real focus point is that avalanche conditions are changing, and we expect the avalanche danger to rise with the upcoming storm."
The first avalanche occurred at 10 a.m. at Maybird Gulch in mid-Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to Utah Avalanche Center reports.
While skiing in Maybird Gulch, a skier inadvertently disturbed a wind pillow: snow deposited by wind over a weaker snowpack beneath it. It created a crack in the snowpack to the skier’s left, which triggered a hard snow slab to fall from 100 feet above. A second skier saw the avalanche and warned the first skier, and they were both able to turn into the woods safely.
While breaking trail to Milly Back Bowl in upper Big Cottonwood Canyon, a skier heard a "faint collapse" and saw the fresh snow buckle. The skier was able to ski safely into adjacent terrain.
Rising temperatures following a snowstorm may lull many outdoor enthusiasts into a false sense of security, according to Gordon.
"We are adding a lot of snow, water and wind-transported snow to some pre-existing weak layers in the snowpack," said Gordon. "The rest of the week is going to get sunny, so that is the perfect combination for an avalanche accident: when we’ve got a weak pre-existing snowpack coupled with snow, and then the sun comes out. The sun makes us feel good. But sometimes the snowpack, especially after a storm, doesn’t feel our same sentiments."
During the January dry spell, the snowpack in the mountains developed weak layers of surface snow, which were then buried several feet deep in the recent storms.
"We might forget about those weak layers, but the snowpack has an amazing memory," he said.
The avalanche danger from warming temperatures has less to do with the sun and its affects on the snow, and more to do with the sun’s affects on our psyche, he said.
"It emboldens us as backcountry travelers," he said. "The sunshine gives us great visibility, and we get deeper into more avalanche prone terrain."
Gordon likened the phenomenon to driving.
"When the weather is crummy, you tend to slow down and be cautious," he said. "When it’s clear and sunny out, you tend to stomp on the accelerator a bit. So tone down the slope angles, tone down your objectives. And no matter what you’re riding, consider the consequences of triggering an avalanche."
Visit www.utahavalanchecenter.org for up-to-date information on avalanche conditions.