Avalanche forecasters warn of 'tricky' backcountry conditions

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SALT LAKE CITY — Fresh powder and an unusual weather setup with howling east winds had avalanche forecasters warning Tuesday of particularly tricky conditions in Utah’s backcountry, affecting low and high elevations.

Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Drew Hardesty said mouths of canyons were potentially at risk for avalanches, though that risk was expected to wane by Wednesday morning.

Hardesty said a warning about those low-level conditions only comes perhaps once every two years.

Forecasters were expressing greater concern, however, about higher-level conditions that led to four “persistent slab” avalanches in the past week involving experienced backcountry skiers.

“We call them low probability, high-consequence avalanches,” Hardesty said.

Hardesty said in each of those cases neither the first nor second skier on the slope triggered the avalanche, and each was up to 3 feet deep and hundreds of feet wide.

“You can be out there and ski four or five different slopes and trigger the avalanche on the sixth slope that you ride,” Hardesty said.

On Monday, Tom Diegel and a friend learned firsthand on Kessler Peak in Big Cottonwood Canyon. An avalanche triggered on Diegel’s fifth time up the slope.

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“There was a big ‘whoomph’ and I looked up and I said, ‘Wow!’” Diegel recalled. “The snow hit me and it clicked my ski off and I started to tumble as a wave of snow hit me.”

Diegel was lucky. The blow was glancing and carried him a few feet down the mountain. His ski, however, ended up far down the slope.

“We — my partner and I — made some judgment calls that day given the conditions that in hindsight, of course, we probably shouldn’t have made,” Diegel said.

For one, he said, they traversed a bit too high up on the slope.

Still, Diegel said there were no prior signs of instability, and he urged other backcountry skiers to rely on their training more than their eyes.

Diegel said he hoped his close call, and he and his skiing partner’s “judgment errors” would lead others to be more careful.

“I’m very happy that I can say that I learned from them rather than getting killed by them,” Diegel said.


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