Early-season a dangerous time for avalanches
December 2, 2014
Avalanches are a part of life in Utah’s mountains and awareness of them is key.
"If you were a kid growing up in Alaska, one of the things you would learn at an early age is how to behave around bears, because that’s just something that’s a part of your environment that you have to be aware of," said Paul Diegel, executive director for the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center. "And if you know what to do, it’s not particularly dangerous. If you don’t know that you’re exposed to danger and what to do about that — it’s quite dangerous."
The Utah Avalanche Center produces daily forecasts, investigates accidents, crowdsources risky areas, raises avalanche awareness and teaches best practices. Craig Gordon, an avalanche forecaster with the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, spoke this week with The Park Record about the current avalanche conditions in the Wasatch Back and the Uintas.
"Early season is when avalanche conditions are probably the most dangerous and unpredictable," he says. "The reason is that oftentimes, we get early-season snow in October or early November.
"We got snow Nov. 1 and then it didn’t snow for a couple of weeks and on the high-elevation shady slopes — the slopes that face the north half of the compass — that snow never melts off and what happens is that it grows weak and sugary."
Those "weak and sugary" layers of snow are a "fragile base," Gordon says, and that’s a recipe for avalanches.
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Bruce Tremper, director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, also cautioned about early-season snow conditions.
"We don’t like to see a lot of snow in the early season," he said. "It’s like a pile of potato chips on the bottom of the snowpack."
If the avalanche center could have its way, what kind of weather would we be having?
"Weak layers are formed by clear weather, so once it starts snowing we like it just to keep snowing," Tremper said.
This week’s forecast
"Right now the Uintas are still pretty thin and rocky," Gordon said on Monday. "The Wasatch Back is actually fairly white, but there have been, as a result of last weekend’s storm, a number of unintentionally triggered backcountry avalanches, the last being Friday. Fortunately, nobody’s been caught, nobody has had any real serious close calls and right now in the Wasatch we’re calling for a ‘considerable danger.’
"Human-triggered avalanches are probable and, again, it sort of goes back to that problem child that we have — those upper-elevation shady slopes."
Those high shady slopes often appear stable, which is part of what makes them so dangerous.
"You can go out and have a blast right now in the backcountry — we’re just advising people to stay off steep, shady slopes at the upper elevations," he said. "And those are the slopes that face northwest through northeast through east. Those are the slopes that also have old snow underneath that Thanksgiving storm, and what makes that really unpredictable is that the snow’s going to feel strong and solid underneath our skis, board or sled.
"Any time we have strong snow on weak snow, it’s always a bad combination in the mountains, and that’s kind of like what we’ve been experiencing since last weekend’s storm, the pre-Thanksgiving storm."
The Utah Avalanche Center’s forecasters are in their Salt Lake City office around 4 a.m. each day in order to prepare the daily forecasts that are the center’s most valuable resource.
"Just monitor the UAC report," said Tremper. "That’s the best way."
"Be armed with the latest updated advisory," Gordon agrees. "That way you can kind of see what’s going on — recent avalanche activity, what the danger rating is — and then backcountry travelers can make their own decisions as to how to navigate through the mountains."
Bookmark the Utah Avalanche Center’s website (utahavalanchecenter.org) — Gordon calls it "a one-stop shop for all things avalanche" — or save its advisory hotline (888-999-4019) in your phone’s contacts. You can also follow the avalanche center on Twitter (@UACwasatch) or on Facebook (facebook.com/Utah.Avalanche.Center).
To contribute to the Utah Avalanche Center, visit its website. Also, this Thursday at 8 p.m., the Park City Film Series and PowderWhore Productions will present a special screening of "Some Thing Else" at the Prospector Theater, 2175 Sidewinder Dr., that will be a benefit for the avalanche center. Tickets are $10.
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