Utah’s Season of Fear


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 23, 2007      

Utah has been hammered by recent avalanche tragedies — five people dead in an incredibly short period of about two weeks.

Today’s Utah avalanche danger advisory says it all:

“Yesterday was the 13th day in a row with human triggered avalanches and my money is on…ah, forget it. Look, conditions are scary! You can trigger a deadly avalanche today, tomorrow, the next day, etc. Strong southwest winds make the weather headlines from yesterday. They’ve been strong for a period of over 24 hours now. Temperatures are dropping and are around 20 degrees in the 8000 to 9000 foot range. Heavy snowfall started falling around 4am and has been snowing in the 3-inch an hour range for the past couple of hours!! Snowbird had 6 inches already at 6 am in the village.”

Utah avalanche.
Utah avalanche that recently killed a snowmobiler. Upper arrow indicates his path of entry, lower arrow points to where he was buried under his snowmobile. (Upper circles indicate points where false searches were done.) Photo from Utah Avalanche Center.

What’s particularly disconcerting about the Utah fatal accidents is that most involve people doing things that break from common safety convention. The human factor? Indeed. In the most recent, a man broke from his partners and skied alone into an avalanche. He had a beacon, which allowed rescue crews to find his body. In another accident, a man and his sons were “frontcountry” skiing at a resort. They were under equipped and inexperienced, the ski patrol gave them a talk, but they went anyway and the 17-year-old was killed in a slide. Adding to the incredible sadness, another boy of 16 was killed in the Uinta Mountains, snowmobiling on an obvious avalanche slope . Though extricated quickly (his group had rescue equipment), he died of injuries from the slide.

To us in Colorado the Utah snowpack is usually an object of envy. It’s somewhat dangerous after storms, but stabilizes quickly due to a slightly warmer and wetter climate that allows the snow to bond well and not develop dangerous “sugar” layers. This year Utah had a thin snowpack that morphed into sugar snow, and that ball bearing layer now has new snow piled on top. Just touch a snowpack like that, and all millions of tons come crashing down like pulling just-the-wrong-box from a nightmarish pile of containers in a warehouse. We’re used to this here in Colorado. Those of us who survive tiptoe around the Colorado backcountry like we’re hiking a minefield, eagerly waiting for the snowpack to stabilize in February or March, then become solid and mostly avalanche safe corn snow when spring hits the alpine.

We can only hope that next winter Utah returns to its usual excellent conditions.



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Comments

7 Responses to “Utah’s Season of Fear”

  1. Sam Punderson February 23rd, 2007 3:24 pm

    Lou:
    From the pic it looks like the crew was sled skiing. Do you have any idea if they had avi gear?

  2. Lou February 23rd, 2007 4:11 pm

    I think that’s the rescue crew’s sleds, or else the avalanche center’s field people. Yes, the kid that died was found using a beacon, he was under his snowmobile and badly injured.

  3. David Aldous February 23rd, 2007 5:40 pm

    Like lou said we aren’t used to this type of snowpack. People need to realize that it doesn’t matter what a normal snowpack acts like or what directions the prevailing wind normally loads the slope or if you have been snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoing or sledding in an area for the last ten years. What matters is the current conditions from the current season. Each snowpack is different from previous years and the conditions are never exactly the same. I wish more people who venture into the backcountry (or side or front country for that matter) would be more careful and aware of the potential dangers they are exposing themselves to.
    I’m guessing the fact that we haven’t had much snow so far this season is contributing to the mental aspect of why people put themselves in these situations. They may be so anxious to get out on the rare fresh snow they ignore the warning signs.
    My recomendation is to be informed of the conditions, travel using all the safety precautions you can and if you haven’t taken an avy course take one. If you have taken a course you might consider a refresher.
    Dave

  4. Matt Kinney February 24th, 2007 11:08 am

    tks 4 your perspectives on some these incidents.

  5. Lou February 24th, 2007 2:58 pm

    Matt, thanks for visiting!

  6. frank February 24th, 2007 6:20 pm

    It has to be very, very difficult right now to be a bc skier in Utah. When past experiences lead one to a certain set of expectations of what is safe or not in the backcountry, it must be very difficult to change that mindset.

    From my own perspective, as a Colorado native, I have never been caught in a serious avalanche in CO (Knock on wood), despite hundreds of days out there. On the other hand, I have had two serious incidents, one in Valdez and the other in the backcountry outside Blackcomb. So, each time I have had a serious incident, it was in a generally safer maritime snowpack. While there were a host of reasons for this, one of the main reasons was simply the fact that I was sticking my neck out more due to the coastal snowpack. It seems reasonable that those recreating in Utah are also used to bigger, steeper, more exposed areas and aren’t adjusting to this poor winter.

  7. Jim Jones February 27th, 2007 9:02 am

    Part of the problem is Utah has been overrun with noobs whose only info is from retarded ski magazines and movies. What they don’t seem to understand is that there are times when the ‘backcountry’ is to be avoided. Some years will be worse than others.

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