Utah Avalanche Center warns backcountry avalanche danger imminent
While the powder in backcountry terrain still looks white and fluffy several days after the Christmas weekend storms, forecasters with the Utah Avalanche Center are warning recreators to exercise extreme caution in areas that are prone to avalanche activity.
Last week, several avalanches were reported in the Central Wasatch Mountains and in the Uintas, according to Craig Gordon, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center. He said there were several close calls, but no accidents were reported.
An avalanche that was 18 inches deep and about 200 feet wide was reported along the Park City ridgeline on Thursday. It was unclear whether it was a natural or triggered slide. A snowmobile-triggered avalanche was observed in the Double Hill North Bowl region of the Uintas on Wednesday. It was 700 feet wide and about 4 feet deep.
“Most of the slides have been triggered remotely, low on the slope and adjacent slopes, and that’s what makes our set up so tricky right now,” Gordon said. “It is a super active time. The Christmas Eve storm has really been the first storm and first significant amount of snow and water, so really the problem in our snowpack lies in the lack of snow and the unusually dry beginning of December.”
The snow setup for most of the state and, especially, Northern Utah has been particularly problematic because the snow that was on the ground grew weak and sugary, Gordon said. The storm over Christmas weekend exacerbated the issue because it put a stronger layer of snow on top of a weaker layer.
“A lot of this revolves around a rain crust that formed in Thanksgiving,” he said. “The sugary snow on top of that provides something for avalanches to slide. Now most slopes are waiting for a trigger, like us, to come along and cause it.”
Last year the region experienced a considerable amount of snow, creating a deep and, mostly, stable snowpack, Gordon said. He added, “This year it is really just the opposite,” which is unusual.
“We are coming off the heels of a dry November and dry December, and this is the first test the snowpack has received, as far as a load and a recent storm,” he said. “If you spent a couple years here in Utah, and your last memory was of last year’s deep, stable snowpack of epic riding, this year is entirely opposite.”
Considering the amount of snow that has fallen, backcountry coverage is enticing for recreators, Gordon said. But, the north-facing shady slopes in the mid-to-upper elevations are producing a dangerous snowpack.
“That’s the kind of terrain we are drawn to,” he said. “But, that terrain holds pre-existing weak layers.”
The current avalanche risk is at a considerable danger level of about 3 on a scale of 1 to 5, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. Gordon said that is when most avalanche accidents occur.
“Our unusual snowpack is going to produce unusual avalanches,” he said. “Just the mere fact that you can trigger an avalanche from an adjacent slope and at a distance is a huge red flag.”
Other red flags for backcountry recreators to watch out for include “whoomphing sounds and shooting cracks,” Gordon said. But, he added, the most obvious clue to predict avalanches is the occurrence of other avalanches.
The region needs back-to-back storms to improve the stability and depth of the snowpack, but no storms are forecasted, Gordon said. But, once it starts snowing, the avalanche danger will ramp up and slopes that haven’t had a slide will be susceptible.
“The problem with these types of low-snow years and, it’s counterintuitive and that’s what tricks experienced people, is they think we haven’t had that much snow so how can there be avalanches?” he said. “We have to think about not only the snow we are riding in, but the snow we are riding on.”
The Utah Avalanche Center is advising backcountry travelers, including skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, snowshoers and hikers, to stay away from steep, wind-drifted slopes, particularly those that face the north.
“It all looks white and fluffy and we are stoked for the new powder,” he said. “We have been snow starved this winter, so we just have to think this is an unstable base, and it is going to need some time to heal and adjust to the last storm.”
Gordon said the fact that avalanches are still being triggered several days after the most recent storm is indicative of the risk. He emphasized that avalanche reduction is nonexistent outside of the area’s resorts.
“If you are heading into the backcountry, of course you need to be prepared for your own self rescue and be your own forecaster,” he said. “That means wearing and knowing how to use an avalanche beacon and shovel. But, if you have to use your avalanche gear, you have made a mistake and you screwed up. The big ticket item is avalanche avoidance.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the avalanche reported was 18 inches deep, not 18 feet.
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