Utah's backcountry conditions are 'ripe for a serious accident' as more storms arrive

A large avalanche by the Cardiff Bowl above the town of Alta on Dec. 18. Avalanche experts say the risk of avalanches in Utah are still extremely high, and more storms in the forecast may prolong the issue or eventually fix it. (Utah Avalanche Center)

Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's mountains have received several feet of new snow over the past few days, which has created joy for many people hitting the slopes but it's also drawn concern from avalanche forecasters.

The Utah Avalanche Center on Tuesday again issued a statewide backcountry avalanche warning, effectively extending previously-issued warnings longer into this week. Mark Staples, the director of the Utah Avalanche Center, told KSL.com that this warning will likely be extended a bit longer, too, ahead of another storm heading toward the state Wednesday.

"In a lot of places, we've doubled our snowpack seems like overnight," he said. "That much load, that quickly, is more than it can handle."

With this year already the deadliest for avalanches in Utah in over a decade, he says the conditions are once again "ripe for a serious accident."

Why experts are sounding the alarm

Utah's snow season has been interesting, to say the least. Since it began, there have been two heavy precipitation months — October and December — that sandwiched a stretch of warm and dry weather. While Utah's snowpack looks normal now, experts say that's the prime mixture for avalanches.

Utah's mountains got an early taste of snow. The statewide snowpack even reached 2 1/2 times the normal by the end of October, which is about when the storms stopped. National Centers for Environmental Information data show that it was Utah's second-warmest and ninth-driest November since statewide data began to be collected in 1895. The snowpack dropped to record-low levels by early December as collection dropped and some of it even melted.

Then the snow returned with vigor. Ski Utah reports most of Utah's resorts have received at least 2 feet of snow just since Christmas Eve, on Friday. Beaver Mountain in northern Utah leads the way with an eye-popping 4 1/2 feet, as of Tuesday morning. There were also productive storms that hit Utah's mountains in previous weeks.

The heavy, wet snow landed on top of what became a "layer cake of ice crusts and weak, sugary and facets" in some mountain areas, Staples explained in a blog post Monday night.

The previous snow season proved how deadly this mixture can be. There were seven people killed in avalanches within the Utah Avalanche Center's range of forecasting, including four in one avalanche at Millcreek Canyon back in February and a fatal avalanche in southeast Idaho. Six of the seven deaths came within three weeks.

But all of those avalanches happened after heavy snow fell on top of a weaker base. With six deaths in Utah this year all from the previous snow season, the avalanche center's records show it's the deadliest year for Utah avalanches since 2007. Staples wrote that conditions now aren't just starting to mirror the conditions in February but trends he's seen over the years when he's had to write fatal avalanche accident reports.

There have already been a few close calls this month.

"The graphs of snowfall history leading up to each accident typically look the same every time, and currently they are matching the graphs of current snowfall across the state," he wrote Monday. "It was shocking for me to see the same snowfall patterns, and I think conditions right now are ripe for a serious accident."

He added that the snow over the past few days means that any new avalanches will be "bigger and more dangerous." It's why the avalanche center has issued warnings, which advise people to stay away from any terrain steeper than 30 degrees for the time being.

Staples told KSL.com Tuesday that he's sure those heading the state's backcountry to ski, snowboard, snowshoe or ride snowmobiles are probably tired of hearing the warnings — but the conditions are worth the alert.

"When you sound the alarm over and over and over again and say conditions are dangerous, it seems like it loses its effectiveness," he said. "We don't want people to get tired of hearing the same warning but that's just where we're at. Conditions are dangerous and we're going to keep that warning in effect until things change."

Almost all of Utah's fatal avalanches are human-triggered

One of the biggest reasons behind the blog post isn't just that conditions are bad but more people are expected to head to the mountain terrain now that Christmas is over. More people out and abound means a higher probability for avalanches.

To be clear, avalanches can be caused by natural or human activity. The Utah Avalanche Center has reported 105 Utah avalanches since the current snow season began Oct. 1, according to data collected Tuesday morning. Of those avalanches, 54 were a result of various human activities like skiing or snowmobiling, while 31 were classified as natural and 20 were listed as "unknown."

But fatal avalanche data show almost all fatal avalanches over the past 20 years have been caused by human activity. In fact, the Utah Avalanche Center last reported a fatal, naturally-caused avalanche in 2003.

In that case, a "whopper of a snowstorm" produced several feet of snow to the Wasatch region on Christmas Day. The day after, a naturally-triggered avalanche descended 4,000 vertical feet by Aspen Grove in Provo Canyon and caught six people below, killing three who were snowboarding at the time.

The avalanche was so large that its debris "covered an area the size of 22 football fields with a likely search area of 11 football fields to a depth of 10 to 25 feet," the agency wrote in its final report.

Avalanche warnings help bring awareness to the conditions, but Staples says there will still be a considerable avalanches risk even after the warnings eventually subside. He's worried that people will head to slopes greater than 30 degrees once the warnings expire and conditions improve a bit.

He explains that avalanche danger isn't like flipping a switch on or off. The snow stabilizes with time, but there's still a risk for a deadly avalanche.

"Oftentimes that's the most dangerous period," he said, of the period right after a warning expires. "Once it goes down a little bit, (the danger) will probably drop from 'high' to 'considerable,' what doesn't change are the consequences of these avalanches. They're going to be huge, they're going to be large, they're going to be deadly, they're going to be destructive — and we can still trigger them while skiing or riding even if the likelihood has gone down a little bit."

It's why he advises people to wait a bit longer, until that risk has gone down "a lot." In addition to avoiding the high-risk areas, which are areas of 30 degrees or steeper terrain or areas close to that, people heading to Utah's backcountry regions are also encouraged to be prepared with the necessary tools in case of an emergency.

These tools include:

  • First aid kit
  • Phone
  • Shovel
  • Headlamp with spare batteries
  • Extra layers
  • Bivy sack or e-blanket
  • Whistle

More tips for backcountry emergency safety can be found here.

More snow is coming. Will it prolong the problem or fix it?

More snow is on the way. The National Weather Service on Tuesday issued a winter storm watch for the state's mountains, which are currently forecast to receive anywhere between another 10 and 20 inches between Wednesday afternoon and Friday evening.

Staples says that enough storms will eventually stabilize the avalanche concern but there's no real snow accumulation figure to definitively prove that conditions have improved. Utah Avalanche Center forecasters head out to locations all over the state every day to test out the snow and check conditions.

They will begin to lower the warnings once they see more stable conditions during these assessments.

"We'll just let the snowpack tell us when it's better," he said. "Unfortunately, we just have to adjust our schedules and our plans around what the snowpack is doing."

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