Avalanche forecasters warn of danger after death in Summit County
A 49-year-old man from Mona died Saturday in an avalanche in the eastern part of Summit County, according to the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
Lt. Andrew Wright said the avalanche occurred in the East Fork of the Chalk Creek area, east of Coalville. Dispatchers received an SOS signal from an avalanche beacon around 1:20 p.m. Avalanche beacons allow backcountry users to send a GPS signal to emergency responders in the event of a slide.
The man, later identified as Jason Lyman, was snowmobiling with his friend Shannon Marchbanks and Marchbanks’ 14-year-old son when the avalanche was triggered, according to a Utah Avalanche Center Facebook post. He was buried in snow for 30 to 40 minutes before Marchbanks and two others were able to dig him out. They performed CPR on Lyman until a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter arrived to transport him to a hospital in Evanston, Wyoming. Lyman was pronounced dead at the hospital.
“None of us are an exception,” Marchbanks said in a video posted to the Utah Avalanche Center’s Facebook page. “I get to go home. My son gets to go home. He doesn’t get to go home.”
No one else was injured in the avalanche, which was estimated at between 500 and 600 feet wide and 4 to 10 feet deep.
The avalanche was one of two Saturday in eastern Summit County that trapped recreaters. The other slide was reported in the Mill Hollow region near Woodland. A snow bike rider triggered the avalanche at an elevation of around 8,200 feet, according to a Utah Avalanche Center report. A rider was buried in the slide, with only one hand sticking out of the snow. However, he was ultimately rescued and did not sustain serious injury.
Craig Gordon, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, said avalanche danger remains high in backcountry areas across the state, particularly in the western Uinta Mountains. The Utah Avalanche Center has recorded 14 avalanches statewide since Feb. 8, with at least two partial burials and several near misses.
“People need to be flexible with travel plans and terrain objectives,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t ride in the backcountry. It just means we need to choose gentle terrain.”
The Uinta and Wasatch Mountains are producing an active avalanche cycle, especially with human-triggered slides. Gordon attributed it to an onslaught of snow, water and wind. Last week, 35 to 75 inches of snow fell across the state. But, he said the added water weight was a “game changer.”
“This is kind of abstract concept, but 4 to 6 inches of water fell and what that equates to is some heavier than usual density snow and then the other thing that was really the game changer was very strong winds,” he said.
Strong, southernly winds across multiple days helped load the north-facing slopes, creating dense slabs of snow, Gordon said.
“The problem with that is before we saw these storms, we had enjoyed clear, cold weather,” he said. “So what that did is weaken the snow surface. It is sort of like potato chips, and then we just parked a bunch of semi-trucks on top of the potato chips and they will be the first to give way. The problem is with the structure we have in the snowpack, particularly in outlying areas like the western Uintas.”
Gordon said several false, green-light indicators are suggesting to backcountry users that the slabs are stable. False indicators could be other tracks on the slopes, dropping cornices and snow pit tests that suggest stability. But, he cautioned, strong snow on weak snow is always a red flag.
Avalanches are being triggered low on the slopes and taking out the entire season’s snowpack.
Avalanche avoidance is the “big ticket item” right now, Gordon said. For those who are venturing into the backcountry, he stressed the importance of carrying safety equipment, including a beacon, probe and shovel. He added, “We need to have all the gear and we need to know how to use it in conjunction with each other.”
The region will continue to experience an active weather pattern starting midweek, Gordon said. There may be a little bit of a break toward the end of the week. But, he said, avalanche danger may still be present as new snow falls.
The snowpack will need time adjust to the additional weight of new snow. Otherwise it will remain particularly vulnerable to avalanches, Gordon said.
“This is great that we are getting these storms and it doesn’t mean you can’t ride,” he said. “We just need to ride safely. It is a long season here and we can exercise a little bit of patience. Wait for it to settle out, gain strength and then you pull the trigger. Until we get to that point and the storms continue to evolve, we need to tone down our objective. The snow isn’t going to be as stoked as we are right now.”
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