Avalanche danger high for Thanksgiving week

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The snowfall in the last day or so is a joy to outdoor recreationists, but it's also a potentially deadly trap for those who aren't careful.

The Utah Avalanche Center issued avalanche warnings for the Wasatch, Western Uintas and the Bear River Range Sunday, advising people to exercise extreme caution because of unstable conditions brought by snow and high winds.

This is the first major avalanche situation of the year. The danger is considered "high" rand it's likely to get worse over the next two days.

If you're headed into the back country, you need to be on your avalanche game, and that means excellent avalanche skills.

–Craig Gordon

"This is one that could put down a lot of snow," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

Before it heads out, the storm may dump as much as 4 feet of snow in the mountains and 6 inches of snow on the valley floors. It some areas such as Ogden, even more snow could fall, McInerney said.

At the ski resorts Sunday, there was a cornucopia of new snow. It's a welcome sight for resort operators as they prepare for what they hope will be a great Thanksgiving weekend.

"Couldn't resist," said Patrick Flannery of Orem. "We've been waiting for this all summer. I love it. It's been great."

At the resorts themselves, there's relatively little danger because avalanche guns are used to control the safety conditions.

"We just rely on these guys to do a good job," said Flannery.

Emily Beckmann added, "We kind of stick to the trails, so we're not that worried about avalanches."


The real danger is in back-country areas where the fresh snow is falling on weaker layers of older snow. Avalanche forecasters are warning backcountry skiers and snowmobilers to be careful and to avoid steep slopes at high elevations, especially those facing north.

"We're starting to see some shallow, natural avalanches," said forecaster Craig Gordon with the Utah Avalanche Center.

In these conditions, human-triggered avalanches are considered likely. So the warning is out: stay away from steep slopes, especially mid-to-high elevation areas loaded with snowdrifts by high winds.

"Oftentimes people underestimate the avalanche danger or they start to get into steeper, more avalanche-prone terrain and as a result they trigger slides," said Gordon. "If you're headed into the backcountry, you need to be on your avalanche game, and that means excellent avalanche skills."

It also means being prepared with proper safety equipment -- beacons, probes, shovels -- and knowing how to use them.

Nearly every year, backcountry snowmobilers and skiers die because they don't pay attention to the warnings. One special worry right now is the great weather predicted for the holiday and the holiday weekend.

That will likely draw lots of people into the mountains, right at a time when the avalanche danger is elevated.


Story compiled with contributions from John Hollenhorst and Amy Joi O'Donoghue.

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