Skier partially buried in slide along Park City’s ridgeline
January 25, 2018
Three skiers triggered an avalanche Wednesday morning on a backcountry slope near Pointy Peak behind the Canyons Village at Park City Mountain Resort on the Park City ridgeline, partially burying one of the men in about two feet of snow.
The skiers caused the avalanche at around 11:30 a.m. when one of them entered a northeast-facing slope, fracturing a slab of snow about 5-to-10 feet above him and about 100-feet wide, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
According to a report the three skiers submitted to the Utah Avalanche Center, they took steps to measure the avalanche threat before riding and found conditions similar to ones they've seen on the ridge this season, when they've skied without incident. They were also equipped with avalanche beacons, probes and shovels.
One of the skiers tried to cut across the slope when the slide began, but was caught and carried through the trees, the report states. His avalanche airbag was deployed and he mostly remained on top of the slide. After about 20 minutes, his skis were located about three feet deep. His head and one arm was sticking out of the debris, the Utah Avalanche Center reported. He did not sustain any injuries.
In 2016, a skier from Wanship died in an avalanche on a slope adjacent to where the three skiers were riding on Wednesday. Stephen Jones was found under about three feet of snow in an area called Shale Shot after being caught in an avalanche about 60-feet wide and 500-feet long.
Craig Gordon, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, said avalanche danger remains high in backcountry areas. Since Jan. 9, he said there have been nearly a dozen close calls or "partial burials, multiple burials and near misses."
"We have dodged a lot of bullets and, quite frankly, our luck is running out," he said. "The beauty is, though, that it doesn't mean you can't ride. We just have to think out of the box and simply avoid the things we have no control of and, right now, we have no control of the unpredictable nature of the snowpack that faces the north."
The Uinta and Wasatch Mountains are producing an active avalanche cycle, especially with human-triggered slides, Gordon said, which is somewhat counterintuitive considering the lean winter.
Gordon said the region's shallow snowpack is particularly unpredictable right now. He said the most recent storm produced about 12 to 18 inches of snow, with up to 2 feet in certain areas, and about 2 inches of water. The snow was denser than what is expected for Utah.
"It immediately became reactive to the additional weight of a person and set a tone for the type of avalanche dragon we are going to be dealing with," he said. "The setup is tricky because an avalanche can still be triggered from a distance and low on the slope."
The recent storm "came in warm and went out cold," Gordon said, producing several inches of light, fluffy powder that is enticing to riders. But, he emphasized, backcountry users need to think about the snow "they are riding on, not just the snow they are riding in."
"We have strong snow on weak snow," he said. "The curveball for us is that this slick crust on north-facing slopes adds a dimension to the snowpack that, once you do trigger an avalanche, they are breaking wider than you might expect, particularly given the lack of snow. They are breaking close to, but not breaking at the ground. They are breaking on this layer that is 18 inches off the ground."
Avalanches are running "faster and farther than you expect and they are packing a lot of heat," Gordon said. The slides are also producing a significant amount of volume.
With snow showers in the forecast over the next couple of days, Gordon suggested backcountry users avoid north-facing slopes because of their unpredictability. He said the slopes facing the south are starting to have enough snow to be rideable and the weak layers are not as prevalent.
"Everyone is super stoked about the upcoming storms, for sure, and we need the snow," he said. "But, if they want to get freshies and get powder, and since the other avalanche dragon is so unpredictable on the shady north-facing slopes, you simply avoid those."
"What this all means in the big picture is you have to be on your game and you have to be able to decipher the differences in those slopes," he added. "And, if you don't have that level of training and expertise, then your other strategy is to enjoy slopes at one of our world-class resorts."
For up-to-date information about avalanche conditions in Utah's northern mountains, go to https://utahavalanchecenter.org.