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Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL, File

Winter storm brings snow to mountains — and the threat of avalanches, officials warn

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Nov. 26, 2019 at 5:43 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Those hoping to hit the slopes during the holiday weekend are likely thankful for a storm that’s expected to pack Utah’s mountains with snow; however, weather experts warn there is also a significant risk for avalanches due to prior conditions.

According to the National Weather Service, some places in the Wasatch Mountains eastward to the Uintas could see upwards of 3 to 4 feet of snow by the time a system passes through at the end of the week. A winter storm warning was issued for most parts of Utah that runs from early Wednesday morning through 10 a.m. Saturday.

The impending storm comes off the heels of another system that dropped a few inches of snow as it passed through Monday.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center on Tuesday issued an avalanche watch for the central and south Wasatch range, as well as the western Uintas. The watch remains in effect through Wednesday morning; however, avalanche forecasters warn conditions may still be bad after the watch expires.

“With the impending storms due to arrive (Wednesday) through the end of Thanksgiving week, we’re expecting the avalanche danger to easily rise to a high with natural and human-triggered avalanches expected,” said Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Drew Hardisty. “Avalanche conditions will be very dangerous for backcountry travelers of all types.”

The watch advises people to avoid being on or under slopes steeper than 30 degrees.

So why is there such a big threat for avalanches? It's primarily because conditions before this week contributed to a poor outlook. Early season storms in late September and October were followed by a dry stretch heading into November that helped foster the heightened avalanche risk, Hardisty explained.

“What that does to those early season snows is it creates weak, sugary, cohesionless, faceted grains. There are about 10 to 12 inches of some very weak snow out there. It has all the strength of a house of cards," he said. "With (this storm), we’re expecting anywhere from 1 to (multiple) feet of snow with strong winds. It’s easily going to overwhelm and wallop early-season snow, creating dangerous avalanche conditions in the mountains.”

Anyone who plans to visit areas where avalanches could occur should check avalanche forecasts before heading out to where they intend to go, Hardisty added. Daily forecasts are posted online by the Utah Avalanche Center.

“It lays out where the conditions are going to be dangerous and point people toward areas that might be less dangerous to stack the odds in their favor,” he said of the forecasts.

Hardisty also urged recreationists to have the proper gear in case they end up trapped in an avalanche.

“Everyone has to have beacons, a shovel, a probe, perhaps an avalanche airbag and a companion — a travel partner in the backcountry,” Hardisty said, adding that people should also receive “Know Before You Go” training to be prepared this winter. “Get educated. Know what signs present themselves for unstable snow in the backcountry and be able to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain if need be.”

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