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UDOT warns of high avalanche danger for President's Day weekend

By Jed Boal | Posted - Feb 14th, 2014 @ 10:47pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — Presidents Day weekend is usually the busiest weekend in Utah's mountains when there's plenty of snow, and there's plenty of snow this year.

At the same time, avalanche danger is high to extreme, and UDOT urges all residents to be patient on the canyon roads, especially if there are closures.

Friday night, The Utah Avalanche Center expanded the avalanche warning to cover all mountains of northern and central Utah. It's a dangerous time in the backcountry, and a busy time for the UDOT avalanche forecasters who keep the canyon roads safe from slides.

"Conditions are very hazardous, and we're trying to keep the hazard to a manageable level," said Liam Fitzgerald, a UDOT avalanche forecaster, who has worked Little Cottonwood Canyon more than four decades.

As the afternoon light waned in Alta, another wave of snow blew across the Wasatch Mountains.

"It's been very intense, around-the-clock," Fitzgerald said, describing the workload of his UDOT crew and the resort snow safety crews over the last two weeks. The UDOT crews have worked 14- and 16-hour shifts to keep the roads safe through all of the recent storms.

They've closed several canyon roads numerous times since the beginning of the month. That allows them to fire Howitzer rounds at identified avalanche paths to trigger slides. With 55 feet of snow, loaded with 6 feet of water, Fitzgerald estimates they've fired 100 rounds in Little Cottonwood Canyon alone.

"It's been much heavier and wetter than normal," Fitzgerald said, characterizing this recent storm cycle. "And, all of that falling on a weak snowpack is responsible for creating the high avalanche hazard that exists here as well as throughout the state."

On average, Little Cottonwood Canyon Road closes for parts of 19 days each year. Each year, the crews keep an eye on 35 named avalanche paths in the upper half of the canyon. Those paths have historically released slides that can reach the road.

Friday afternoon, the crew in Alta talked about its expectations for the road very early Saturday morning. The crew has to make a decision before 4 a.m. whether to close the road for avalanche work.

Another avalanche forecaster checked the density and stability of the snow at the weather station.

"That's quite solid, new snow on top of quite weak old snow," said Damian Jackson, tilting a snow laden board that gives them a good read on how easily a slab of snow might slide.

UDOT asks for patience from all residents when it has to close the roads to do more avalanche control.

If crews don't stay on top of it around-the-clock, avalanches that reached the canyon roads could prove to be deadly for people headed to the resorts.

"The public needs to understand that just as the very unusual weather on the East Coast is making life difficult for many people, (the) weather that we're having here in the mountains of Utah is making life difficult."

Fitzgerald said no one has died in an avalanche on Little Cottonwood Canyon Road since 1952. A state worker removing avalanche debris was hit by a secondary avalanche.

He advises all residents who enjoy the Cottonwood Canyons to carpool, or take the ski bus whenever possible. The extra traffic from single motorists makes their job more difficult and also contributes to the high avalanche rating on the roads.

The UDOT forecasters expect a couple more inches of snow in the mountains overnight. Right now, they don't anticipate any early morning road closures.

Afternoon heating, however, can also trigger slides. So, as the temperatures rise this weekend, the forecasters say everyone should be prepared for the possibility of canyon closures.


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