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Avalanche watch issued for Utah backcountry


Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY – High winds ahead of a snowstorm heading to Utah are making for some dangerous avalanche conditions.

The National Weather Service has issued an avalanche watch for Utah's backcountry, but Utah Avalanche Center officials said conditions will worsen over the next few days.

Phil Santala is an avid backcountry enthusiast who has skied those areas in Utah for 12 years and survived an avalanche two years ago.

"The first turn was glorious Utah champagne powder, you know, the greatest snow in the world, whatever the license plate says," Santala said. "The second turn was terrifying. I didn't see daylight again after I grabbed onto that tree. I got pulled off and knocked backward and everything was just sort of like being whitewashed, like when you're a kid and somebody's pushing your face in the snow."

He got lucky that day. After tumbling 500 or more feet, he popped out at the bottom of the slide, on top. He said if that happened this year, it wouldn't have the same ending.

"We've got a way different picture out there with this persistent weak layer, where if you pull down that new snow, it's gonna step way down to that old snow and you're gonna get big, unsurvivable avalanches," said Craig Gordon, an avalanche forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center.

Gordon said this year's conditions are "like a house of cards."

"All we need to do is roll along, kick the legs out from underneath it and then the entire roof the entire log pile is crashing down on top of us," he said.

Santala closely watches the Utah Avalanche Center website to monitor conditions and to read incident reports. He believes everyone heading out should be doing that too. But his advice for beginners and for experts like himself is to be patient and wait until conditions are more stable.

It could be matter of life and death.

"In a month or so, we will be in this low probability, high consequence zone. It's a low chance you're gonna trigger something, but if you do it's gonna be big. It's gonna be unsurvivable," he said.

You can check out avalanche conditions here.

Debbie Worthen


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