With ski resorts closed, more people are turning to the backcountry. But experts say avalanche risk remains.
It’s been a rough time for Park City skiers and snowboarders.
With the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shutting down the ski resorts in the mountain town, winter sport enthusiasts have been left with fewer options of how to get out and enjoy the final snowstorms of the year.
With that desire to get out and hit the snow, more skiers and snowboarders are flocking to the backcountry.
“I don’t really know what people are going to do, but for folks who want to go out skiing or snowboarding, this is their only option that they have realistically,” said Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center. “A lot of people in the community do it. … And from what I understand, the backcountry part of the ski industry has seen some of the biggest growth in the industry. People want to get outside, exercise and ski some powder and this is the only way to do so.”
But according to Staples, while the backcountry may be the only option in the area for skiing and snowboarding right now, it’s accompanied by risks.
Avalanches are a serious danger that comes with backcountry skiing and snowboarding. And they can be fatal.
That’s why Staples and other avalanche experts are pleading with backcountry users to arm themselves with information on what causes avalanches, the different types of slides and what to do if caught in one.
“Backcountry can be incredibly safe, but if done the right way. … We are in control of how much risk we expose ourselves to by understanding avalanches and where or why they can happen,” Staples said. “The more people can educate themselves on the risks and dangers, the more they can control and ultimately have a great time out there. Part of it just getting the education down and then the other part is actually using it whenever you’re out in the backcountry.”
There is nothing abnormal with the recent weather, Staples said, but the snowfall combined with periods of warm weather creates different layers of snow, snowpack and ice that can make avalanches both more likely and more dangerous.
Those avalanches are typically heavier and can pick up more speed, Staples said, breaking all the way down the side of the mountain to the ground.
“Those types of avalanches are massive and deadly, the ones that cause the most damage and destruction when it’s finished,” Staples said. “But we aren’t seeing any of that, so that’s a good sign. What we are seeing and expecting right now are avalanches that will be breaking with the new snowfall happening. … While they can still be deadly, they will definitely be softer and a little shallower.”
Given the risks, one thing that is causing concern for Staples and the Utah Avalanche Center is the amount of people expected to be out in the backcountry.
Typically, many winter sports enthusiasts are at the resorts getting their runs this time of the year, with the majority of those hitting the backcountry being experienced skiers who understand the risks and dangers associated with avalanches and know how to avoid them.
Those who are inexperienced may not only be putting themselves at risk, but also those around them.
“A lot of the folks out right now don’t have that experience or knowledge of avalanches,” Staples said. “… The trouble is that whether it’s deep or shallow, big or small, avalanches can kill. Even a small avalanche will sweep you downhill with trees or rocks in the way. … While that size may not kill or bury you, it’ll beat you up pretty good.”
Because of that inherent risk, Staples is asking all of those who are going out into the backcountry to study up on avalanche safety. The Utah Avalanche Center offers a five-part, free online tutorial to help people gather a better understanding of the risks.
Some of the gear that is mandatory to take out with backcountry riders include a transceiver, a probe, and a shovel to help you find a buried partner or be found yourself. You should always carry your gear on your body with your transceiver turned on, and while also not mandatory but strongly suggested, is riding with an inflatable pack to help increase your chances of staying on top of an avalanche should it occur.
Staples said that one of the surest ways to avoid an avalanche and enjoy the time in the backcountry is to find terrain with less than a 30-degree slope — or something equivalent to a green run at a resort. The risk jumps up dramatically on any slope above 30 degrees. With the risks changing throughout the day due to weather conditions, Staples also asks that people monitor conditions beforehand and go out with others — 6 feet apart, that is — who have an understanding of avalanche safety.
“Backcountry skiing or snowboarding can be totally safe and it isn’t all that complicated if you have some knowledge of it,” Staples said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to wrap your head around the basic understanding of avalanche safety so learning about it can only help in the end.”
Park City Head Coach Pete Stoughton mentioned how his team will bring their trademark enthusiasm to what should be a relatively-rain soaked course, saying in a prepared statement, “we anticipate radiant smiles on all of our riders faces this weekend.”
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