Heavy snow brings increased backcountry avalanche risk in Utah
Fresh powder dumping from the skies can be enticing to backcountry users, especially over a holiday weekend. But, the changing weather pattern is expected to increase the avalanche risk outside of resort boundaries over the next few days.
Craig Gordon, a longtime forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, said a robust storm system was expected to move into the area late Friday and into Saturday. He said the system would likely be accompanied by strong winds and intense snowfall rates.
“We are going to be super stoked to see that because we are all jonesing to get out there,” he said on Wednesday. “But, the snowpack and the areas that do have pre-existing snow won’t feel the same level of stoke.”
Natural and human-caused avalanches commonly occur in the backcountry areas of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. Nearly all avalanche fatalities occur outside of resort boundaries.
The early-season storms that hit Northern Utah laid down the building blocks for the winter snowpack, Gordon said. Recent mild temperatures melted off some of the snow on the south-facing slopes. However, pre-existing snow on some mid- and upper-level, shady north-facing slopes was still there as the snow began to fall on Thursday, making those areas susceptible to avalanches.
“That snow over time has become structurally weak,” he said. “Unfortunately, as humans we tend to migrate toward those places that have a pre-existing snowpack. But, that is where the avalanches are going to be the most prevalent. That is going to be the sketchy and suspect terrain that you simply want to avoid.”
The snow will likely be very reactive to the additional weight of backcountry users. Gordon said that sensitivity can lead to avalanches that are triggered from adjacent slopes and lower levels. The problem over the weekend, particularly on Saturday and Sunday, will be discerning which slopes had pre-existing snow.
“If you don’t feel super solid with your backcountry avalanche skills, ride at the resorts and avoid the backcountry altogether,” he said, referring to the fact that both Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort perform avalanche control within their boundaries.
The other options available to people who want to recreate outside of the resort boundaries is to avoid the mid- and upper-level elevation shady slopes and stick with lower angles, on south-facing slopes.
“Those will be the ticket,” he said. “Even though this will be a nice storm and lay down a couple feet of snow, there will be rocks and other buried obstacles. The low-angle, south-facing terrain will be your best bet. You won’t have that structurally challenged snow underneath. That could prevent increased avalanche hazards.”
The storm over the holiday weekend signifies the onset of a more active weather pattern, which somewhat hints at a long-term change in the weather, Gordon said. He added, “All of which, I suspect, means we will see a pretty active avalanche cycle.”
“Snow is like people. It doesn’t like rapid change,” he said. “It will react and it will get cranky. What we need to do simply realize it is a long season. The stoke meter can be high. We also have to temper our terrain choices.”
Gordon suggested toning it down this early in the season. He said this time of year is when there is typically a high percentage of unintentional human-triggered avalanches, close calls and fatalities.
When an avalanche is triggered on a thin, early-season snowpack, it can often break close to the ground and reveal rocks, stumps and downed trees, Gordon said.
“Getting raked through those in an avalanche with that terrain could ruin your day and end your season or, potentially, be much more serious,” he said.
Gordon encouraged backcountry users to check the latest avalanche advisories and be prepared for the worst. Beacons, shovels, probes, avalanche airbags and transceivers are typical items recommended for backcountry recreaters.
“Right now, the best avalanche avoidance is the one we don’t even trigger,” he said. “We will, over the course of the next few days, see changing backcountry avalanche conditions. We expect danger will be on the rise from Thanksgiving through the weekend.”
To check the latest reports from the Utah Avalanche Center, go to utahavalanchecenter.org.
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