Backcountry skier escapes avalanche at Dutch Draw |

Backcountry skier escapes avalanche at Dutch Draw

Alan Maguire, The Park Record

If you ride the Ninety-Nine 90 Express lift at Canyons Resort on a powder day, you’ll likely see a steady stream of skiers and boarders leaving the resort and hiking up a ridgeline into the backcountry right as you get off the lift.

There are signs reading "AVALANCHE TERRAIN" and even "YOU CAN DIE" that hikers pass as they scale the ridgeline. Resorts conduct avalanche control within their boundaries; outside those boundaries, you assume your own risk.

Last Friday, Dec. 26, a 300-foot wide, 500-foot vertical avalanche was triggered by one of the many backcountry skiers in the area southwest of the Ninety-Nine 90 peak, known as Dutch Draw.

According to Utah Avalanche Center observation reports, the man who triggered the avalanche was a highly experienced backcountry skier. When the avalanche triggered, "he managed to stay on top of the wash and was buried to his neck."

The skier reported that the avalanche struck him "like a NFL linebacker." He was quickly dug out by his party, escaping unscathed.

The snow where the avalanche came to a halt was up to 15 feet deep.

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Craig Gordon and Trent Meisenheimer, both with Utah Avalanche Center, conducted a follow-up investigation the day after the incident.

Their snowpack examination revealed three inches of "very light snow" from Dec. 18 "that seemed to almost facet overnight." Then on Dec. 19-20, three more inches of snow fell, with very little wind, "so this layer was well preserved." Finally, "copious amounts of snow, wind and water" occurred on Dec. 21 and 22, followed by "the Christmas day storm that brought 10 to 20 inches of low density snow."

"Classic sucker snow," Gordon said. "Strong snow on weak snow and then this nice, light fluff on top."

The Utah Avalanche Center had forecasted "considerable" danger north-facing slopes above 9,500 feet in elevation on the day of the avalanche.

"That slope, in my personal opinion, does not get the respect it deserves," said Brett Kobernik, forecaster at the Avalanche Center, of Dutch Draw. He added that it’s a "classic place" for slides to occur.

"Avalanche conditions remain sketchy in the Wasatch, especially on slopes steeper than 35 degrees, and on those aspects that face the north half of the compass," concluded Gordon.

Latest Utah Avalanche Center Forecast (as of Tuesday, Dec. 30)

SLC-area Wasatch Mountains:

"A CONSIDERABLE avalanche danger will once again be in place for the northerly facing steep higher terrain. Dangerous human triggered hard slab avalanches are likely. Pay attention to any drifting that may occur along the high terrain if the east wind increases more than forecast. This could form slabs on west facing terrain where we don’t usually see them. Also, people without good avalanche assessment skills should avoid steep snow covered slopes in the foothills where wind is drifting snow."

Uinta Mountains:

"At upper elevations at and above treeline, the avalanche danger is CONSIDERABLE. Human triggered avalanches are probable on steep, wind drifted slopes facing the north half of the compass, especially on slopes with an easterly component to their aspect. Any slide triggered today has the potential to break to the ground, resulting in a dangerous avalanche.

"A MODERATE avalanche danger exists on recently wind loaded slopes at mid elevations and human triggered avalanches are possible

"A LOW avalanche danger exists on low and mid elevation slopes facing the south half of the compass and terrain that had no pre-existing snow prior to last week’s big storm."