Avalanche danger escalates
December 22, 2007
Avalanche forecaster Bruce Tremper said someone could easily die in the backcountry this weekend.
"There is a good chance of it. We fully expect something bad to happen Saturday," Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center Director Bruce Tremper said. "We’ve dodged bullets the last couple weekends with very close calls."
The most dangerous snow lurks when avalanche danger is "considerable." Forecasters expect high danger ratings this weekend with sunshine expected over plenty of freshly fallen powder
"’Considerable’ is the most dangerous rating that we have," Tremper said. "Most accidents happen during ‘considerable’ danger because people perceive that it’s OK to go out there — but it’s really not."
Last week, two snowboarders cheated death in Big Cottonwood Canyon by surviving two human-triggered avalanches near Brighton ski resort.
"You have to be careful when you go out of bounds. A lot of people trigger avalanches when they leave the boundaries of a ski area," Tremper said, adding that one victim suffered severe facial trauma in the avalanche. "They are stepping into the Stone Age and nobody is doing any avalanche control. There are lions and tigers and bears and avalanches."
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Jake Hutchinson, ski patrol director at The Canyons, said plenty of good snow can be had within resort boundaries where the avalanche danger has been reduced.
"There is not any reason to go out and risk your life in the backcountry for a couple of powder turns. It’s dangerous out there right now," Hutchinson said. "It went from being too thin to ski, and then, all of the sudden, we get these big storms on top of it and we’ve had fairly exciting avalanche conditions on open terrain. And that means it’s going to be than much more exciting in the backcountry around us."
Recently in the Park City area, two men were killed in separate avalanches near The Canyons in 2005 and in Empire Canyon in 2004.
"We’re jonesing for freshies right now," said Craig Gordon, an avalanche forecaster in the Uinta Mountains east of Kamas. "People are psyched when it’s snowing, and what we’ve got to think of is, how is all of the old snow going to react to the additional weight of the new snow."
Inexperienced people should stay out of the woods this weekend, he insisted.
"Any of the pre-existing snow that we had in October and November, all that snow has turned weak and sugary into what we call ‘faceted snow,’" Gordon explained, adding, "we’ve got to start thinking like the snow pack rather than the powder-starved backcountry skier and snowboarder."
Heavy snow piled upon weak layers creates deadly avalanche scenarios, he said.
"The snow pack is going to start getting cranky with all the new snow and all of the wind blowing it around," Gordon said. "No matter what our backcountry discipline is, we have, obviously, a choice to make. Maybe we just need to temper our desire to get in the backcountry and hang out at the resorts a little bit."
Most accidents involving avalanches happen the first sunny days after a storm, he lamented.
"We’ve got the perfect recipe out in the backcountry right now for either a close call or an accident," Gordon said. "We tend to feel, as backcountry enthusiasts, a little more confident when it’s sunny out. The snow pack doesn’t necessarily share those same views."
Slopes steeper than 30 degrees should be avoided this weekend, Gordon warned.
"One of the biggest factors to this is what kind of terrain you are traveling in," he said.
No avalanche accidents have been reported from around Park City this year, so snow is primed to slide, Tremper said.
"Any place outside of the Cottonwood canyons is thinner and weaker snow. So it’s more dangerous there," he said. "Stay out from underneath steeper terrain. You can trigger the avalanche from underneath the slope."
Meanwhile, midweek holidays mean many people could be snowmobiling next week in the Uinta Mountains, Summit County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Commander Don LaFay said.
"It seems like a lot of people end up taking that whole week off. So, if we get a lot of snow between now and next week, I think we’re going to be busy," LaFay lamented. "I don’t know what’s up there, but I wouldn’t even get off the [Mirror Lake Highway.]"
Avalanche safety tips: 1. Always carry rescue gear that includes a beacon, shovel and probe 2. Before you go, consult the avalanche advisory at (888) 999-4019 or visit http://www.utahavalanchecenter.com 3. Cross avalanche terrain one person at a time and always leave someone in a safe spot to do the rescue in case something goes wrong 4. Stay away from slopes steeper than 30 degrees that face the northerly half of the compass Source: Utah Avalanche Center