Avalanche safety is emphasized as winter and ski season arrive
Experts say it’s too early to project this winter’s conditions, but last season was one of deadliest on record
For The Park Record
The winter of 2020-2021 was one of the deadliest on record in Utah’s backcountry, with six avalanche fatalities in the state and another fatality just across the border in southeast Idaho.
“Staying safe was a challenge for everyone in the backcountry because the snowpack was dangerous and unstable for much of the winter,” the Utah Avalanche Center said in its annual report.
The report noted there were 40% more avalanches and 64% more people were caught in avalanches last season than during the previous winter, as well as a record number of users who flocked to the backcountry.
Craig Gordon, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, said that anytime early-season snow is followed by long periods of dry weather, the snowpack structure will deteriorate and lose strength over time.
This season, winter got off to a robust start with snow in October but it tapered off, Gordon said. However, he said it’s too early to project whether avalanche conditions will be better or worse as the state heads into winter.
Natural avalanches were spotted on Oct. 11, as a storm brought 1 to 2 feet of snow to Little Cottonwood Canyon and up to a foot to the Park City ridgeline.
The first skier-caused avalanche in Utah this season was reported Oct. 15. The slide was relatively small and apparently no one was hurt.
In 2020, the first significant snowfall arrived in early November and was followed by minimal snowfall across most of the state the rest of the month, according to the Avalanche Center. Cold, clear nights in December weakened the early-season snow and created a persistent weak layer near the ground throughout most of the state, the center says in its report.
Then in early February, an avalanche in the Wilson Glades area in Millcreek Canyon caught, carried and fully buried six people. Two of the skiers were recovered alive but four did not survive.
Two weeks later, a snowmobiler riding in the backcountry near Sherman Peak in Idaho was killed by an avalanche that was remotely triggered by his party.
Gordon said that before heading in the backcountry, everyone — skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, snowmobilers, hikers and others — needs to check the avalanche forecast, which can be found on the center’s website, utahavalanchecenter.org.
In addition, they need to take other safety measures, he said.
“You’ve got to be prepared for your own rescue,” Gordon said. “That means wearing and knowing how to use an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe.”
The center offers a Know Before You Go Avalanche Awareness Program and numerous other classes and resources that cover the basics of avalanches; how to read a forecast; hazard awareness; companion rescue; terrain and stability awareness; and the proper use of beacon, probe, and shovel.
Over the years, an increasing number of people have been coming to the backcountry and Gordon expects that trend to continue this winter.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, “more and more people have less tolerance for waiting in lift lines or in traffic or being around people. They want to go out and experience the mountains,” he said.
“I think we will continue to see increased growth and people enjoying the amazing terrain that we have in our backyard and also the snow that we’re blessed with,” Gordon said.
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