‘The snowpack is teetering near its breaking point,’ avalanche officials warn

Danger is high ahead of a weekend anticipated to be busy

The scene of a deadly avalanche just outside the Park City Mountain Resort boundaries earlier this year. Officials fear the conditions this weekend will entice users onto an unstable snowpack where avalanche danger is high.
Courtesy of the Utah Avalanche Center

Utah avalanche officials sent out a plea Friday afternoon for people to make conservative choices if they head into the backcountry, issuing stern warnings ahead of what they predict will be a busy weekend.

“Avalanche forecasters of the Utah Avalanche Center fear conditions are perfect for avalanche accidents in the backcountry across the mountains of northern Utah this weekend,” the Utah Avalanche Center wrote in a prepared statement. “… Improving weather this weekend and enticing fresh powder may lure unsuspecting people into dangerous backcountry avalanche terrain.”

Avalanche experts advise those traveling in the backcountry to avoid slopes steeper than 30 degrees, as well as any slopes that are connected to steeper ones, as there have been frequent recent reports of remotely triggered slides.

Experts advise anyone traveling in the backcountry to take with them avalanche knowledge and a partner, as well as the three key pieces of safety equipment: a beacon, probe and shovel.

The beacon sends a signal to and receives a signal from other beacons, allowing for rescue or recovery; the probe is used to locate objects buried under snow; and the shovel is used to dig them out.

High winds have layered snow onto an already-weak snowpack, the avalanche center wrote in the prepared statement, creating an unstable dynamic. Adding to the danger are seemingly calm weather conditions as a week storms has largely subsided and sunshine is predicted later this weekend.

Backcountry users who have played it safe by waiting a week for the snow to settle after big storms may not have waited long enough.

“The snowpack is teetering near its breaking point with multiple persistent weak layers of faceted snow under a slab of new snow and wind drifted snow,” the center wrote in its Friday avalanche forecast for the Uinta Mountains.

Faceted snow creates a weak layer that does not bond with the rest of the snowpack. Slabs of bonded snow can be feet thick, but, if resting on weak layers, can slide when disturbed.

Avalanche experts have likened it to a setup of dominos, where a skier can hit one unlucky spot on a face of snow and knock over the precarious setup, sending the whole face into an avalanche.

Avalanche conditions remain high or considerable across the state, including in the Park City area and Uinta Mountains, according to the center.

“Most slopes are waiting for a trigger like a person or a falling cornice which will likely trigger an avalanche today,” the Friday forecast states.

Observers reported wind gusts near 50 mph in the Uinta Mountains and that the east and southeast winds were loading snow in unusual places. That, coupled with the weak snowpack, means that slopes that are usually safe may not be so for the near future.

Avalanche experts advise users to avoid slopes steeper than 30 degrees when avalanche danger is high. Gentler slopes have a lower risk of sliding.

The avalanche center shared an observation of a skier-caused avalanche on Thursday in Weber Canyon that slid on a 31-degree pitch, illustrating the touchy conditions.

The center reported multiple avalanches observed in both the Wasatch Range and Uinta Mountains.

An extremely dry winter has not prevented avalanches from turning deadly already this season, with a slide claiming the life of a 31-year-old snowboarder earlier this year in a popular backcountry location just outside the boundaries of Park City Mountain Resort.

As the snow has begun to fly in recent days, the remnants of previous storms have made for a dangerously unpredictable snowpack.

Officials already predicted a pandemic-fueled influx of users into the backcountry, many of whom, they feared, would lack sufficient avalanche knowledge or experience.

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