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Forecasters warn of big slide danger

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

Avalanche trackers report at least two slides occurred in the mountains ringing Old Town during the recent spate of snowstorms, including one in Empire Canyon, the site of a fatal avalanche in 2004.

Forecasters expect the conditions will remain hazardous in the backcountry in the Park City area at least through the weekend, a result of the new snowfall, the characteristics of the layer of snow beneath and the wind.

"Avalanches like that were occurring all over the place in the backcountry," says Bruce Tremper, the director of the Utah Avalanche Center, a service of the United States Forest Service.

Avalanche experts reported the two slides, the center says.

The Empire Canyon avalanche was reported Feb. 25 and caused by a skier. The center says it occurred at an elevation of 8,600 feet, was between 18 and 24 inches deep and was 150 feet wide.

The other slide, described as occurring in the backcountry close to Deer Valley and caused by a nearby skier, also was reported on Feb. 25. It occurred at the 8,600-foot level, was between one and two feet deep and was 150 feet wide.

The center’s listing of avalanches does not provide the precise locations of the two slides. The 8,600-foot elevation puts them 300 feet higher than Deer Valley Resort’s Empire Canyon lodge.

Tremper expects the conditions will be "pretty dangerous" through the weekend. He describes the new snow on top of the old snow as being as if a brick was put on a pile of corn flakes, making the snow more susceptible to slides.

The center says there is a high danger of avalanches, both natural and those triggered by people, and says slides are likely through the weekend. It has issued an avalanche warning for the Wasatch Mountains and the western Uintas.

Empire Canyon, which is frequently called Daly Canyon, is popular with snowshoers and cross-country skiers and downhill skiers sometimes challenge the steep canyon walls. With its mouth at the southern end of Old Town, lots of Parkites see it as an easily accessible backcountry spot.

"I do think people get lulled to sleep a little bit because of its proximity to the city," says Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds, whose department manages the county’s Search & Rescue division.

In 2004, an avalanche struck two snowshoers in Empire Canyon, about one mile south of the southernmost house on Daly Avenue, killing Jason Delecour, a 34-year-old Texas man. The other man, Matthew Webb from Park City, became stuck in snow up to his hips. He freed himself, searched for Delecour and then summoned help on Daly Avenue.

Edmunds says others have triggered avalanches in Empire Canyon before but they have gotten themselves out. He agrees with the avalanche forecasters that the conditions will be dangerous over the weekend.

"We were very fortunate we only had one fatality," Edmunds says.

The avalanche center reports several other slides in the Park City area since mid-February, including at Pine Cone Ridge.

It says about four people die each year in avalanches in Utah and about 10,000 slides happen in the state annually. In nine out of 10 cases, the avalanche’s victim or someone the person was with causes the slide, according to the avalanche center. Four people have been killed this winter.

The center operates an avalanche hotline. The toll-free number is 1 (888) 999-4019.

"The possibility of making a bad judgment call is substantially greater, the consequences substantially greater" with the new snow, says Charlie Sturgis, a manager at White Pine Touring, an outdoors store.

Sturgis says people in the backcountry should wear an avalanche beacon and understand how it is used and carry a probe, a shovel, a compass, a first-aid kit and food and water.

He expects warmer weather predicted for the weekend will heighten the hazard.

"If you’re not knowledgeable, you shouldn’t be going," Sturgis says.


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