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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 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.