Avalanche danger elevated with slides reported along Park City ridgeline | ParkRecord.com

Avalanche danger elevated with slides reported along Park City ridgeline

A 300-foot wide, ‘unsurvivable’ avalanche was reported over the weekend

An “unsurvivable” avalanche was triggered within Park City Mountain Resort’s boundaries late Saturday, but the area had not yet been opened and resembles backcountry terrain in similar areas. It occurred in the Rhino Bowl near Jupiter Peak, spanning 300 feet wide and running 500 feet vertically, with an average depth of 4 feet, before stopping. 
Courtesy of the Utah Avalanche Center

The early season snowfall has been a welcome sight for winter recreationists, but riders heading into the backcountry were reminded of the potential dangers over the weekend.

An “unsurvivable” avalanche was triggered within Park City Mountain’s boundaries late Saturday. The area, which had not yet been opened, resembles backcountry terrain in other areas, according to Dave Kelly, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center. The avalanche occurred in the Rhino Bowl near Jupiter Peak, spanning 300 feet and running 500 feet vertically, with an average depth of 4 feet, before stopping. 

A Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter flew over the area and Park City Ski Patrol worked to check whether anyone was buried and determined that no one was caught. Kelly said it’s difficult to determine what triggered the avalanche, but snowmobile tracks were observed on the ridgeline, close to the slide.

There were also two avalanches triggered by skiers along the Park City ridgeline on Monday between No Name and No No Name. Officials said each had a persistent weak layer.

Avalanche danger in the Salt Lake area has been considerable since the beginning of this month, and the center issued a warning on Thursday afternoon, warning of dangerous conditions in the Wasatch, Uinta and Bear River mountain ranges. 

Recent winter storms have brought heavy snow, which can cause sensitive conditions to become unstable. Avalanches happen when a weak base of snow is overloaded by a heavier layer. They only occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees.

“Each season is pretty unique so if you think about it, it’s pretty similar to building a house where you put a foundation in and you build everything off of that foundation,” Kelly said. “Things change as you have different pieces of that puzzle come back together.”

He noted that the season started with a strong foundation set by early snowfall. However, there were several days where clear, cold weather caused the surface to become increasingly delicate. Then, last week, there was new snowfall and strong winds blowing from the south that caused a slab – which occurs when a strong layer of snow sits on top of a weak layer – to form. 

The avalanche that broke off the Rhino Bowl had a weak layer that was approximately 30 inches off the ground and made up of thin freeze-melt crust with small, faceted grains above and below, according to the Utah Avalanche Center report. This tells officials the weak layer is elevated off the ground, which means there is the potential for much larger, more prevalent avalanches in the backcountry this winter. Danger will remain considerable as long as the fragile base layer persists. 

Kelly said it can be challenging to forecast how the season will play out because the “weather is a large architect.” Backcountry conditions will vary depending on if it snows consistently over a longer period compared to heavy snowfall in a short time.

Members of the Park City Ski Patrol assisted the Utah Department of Public Safety to determine if anyone was involved in the avalanche that occurred within Park City Mountain Resort boundaries on Saturday. The terrain is being treated as backcountry as it is not yet open to the public.
Courtesy of the Utah Avalanche Center

“If you think about it like a layer cake, where you have a bunch of powdered sugar on the bottom and three inches of cream cheese frosting on top of it, it’s going to tip on its side – and that’s a lot like an avalanche,” Kelly said.

Utah Avalanche Center officials warn that most accidents and fatalities occur during considerable avalanche danger that involves a persistent weak layer. Riders heading outside of ski resort boundaries into the backcountry are reminded that they are entering dangerous territory. 

Kelly advises people to pay attention to the avalanche forecast, which is updated daily, for the most recent travel advice and danger ratings. Users are also encouraged to make sure they have the proper training and equipment when traveling into the backcountry, such as a beacon, shovel, probe and partner. 

There were zero avalanche fatalities in Utah during the 2021-2022 season. The previous winter was one of the deadliest in the state’s history, with six avalanche fatalities in the backcountry and another death close by in southeast Idaho.

The avalanche forecast and additional information can be found at the Utah Avalanche Center website, utahavalanchecenter.org.

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