Utah's recent storms have already led to dozens of avalanches. Here's how to stay safe

McKinley Talty, of the Utah Avalanche Center, demonstrates how to use a beacon at an event kicking off the fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Week, at Sugar House Park on Monday.

McKinley Talty, of the Utah Avalanche Center, demonstrates how to use a beacon at an event kicking off the fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Week, at Sugar House Park on Monday. (Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Ryan Clerico's primary job is overseeing a Utah energy industry company; however, he used to have enough off-time — primarily on the weekends — to help rescue people off the Wasatch Mountains.

Trends have changed over the past few years, though, and volunteering with the Salt Lake County Search and Rescue is no longer a role for weekend warriors. Utah is drawing in more outdoor adventure seekers and the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many residents tweaking traditional job hours. At the same time, there's been a rise in backcountry visitation in the winter.

All of this means there are more and more people who aren't just heading into the mountains; they're also spreading out when and where they travel. It's altering when someone may need to be rescued.

"People would ask me how I do search and rescue with a full-time job, and I'd tell them that not a lot of people get lost and injured at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. They get lost at 9 o'clock at night or on a weekend. Now ... we're doing rescues in the middle of the week and the middle of the day, and in places that we've never done them before," said Clerico, the vice commander for Salt Lake County Search and Rescue.

The rise in demand for outdoor winter activities also led to the creation of Utah Avalance Awareness Week, which was first created in 2019. It's a week dedicated to education and preparedness that can ultimately help save lives. This year's educational week began with an event Monday evening, drawing in industry experts to discuss safety and highlight the season's avalanche outlook.

It's already been a fairly active season. The Utah Avalanche Center has received dozens of reports of avalanches already this season, including 19 over this past weekend alone. Utah could be in for a long avalanche season if storms continue to be sporadic throughout the winter and early spring.

That's where knowledge is key, says Chad Brackelsberg, the center's executive director.

"What we hope people can do is learn that avalanches are a risk anytime you're in the mountains. But there are things you can do to stay safe," he said. "By giving people basic education ... (people can) learn a few simple steps to stay safe."

The best safety tips for avalanche season

Monday's event primarily focused on teaching recreators how to use transceivers, which are beacons that help find people in case they are buried in an avalanche. Participants used Sugar House Park's steep hills to practice locating buried transceivers.

Winter will punish you if you're not prepared.

–Ryan Clerico, Salt Lake County Search and Rescue

Transceivers are a highly recommended tool when heading out into the mountains. However, knowing the conditions before any trip is the best advice, Clerico says. This is a tip that's often given in the outdoors for a myriad of activities but it definitely matters during the winter months.

"I'd like to say that in the summer you can get away with a lot of mistakes. Winter is a lot less forgiving," he said. "Winter will punish you if you're not prepared."

Both the Utah Avalanche Center and National Weather Service post important snow and avalanche-related information, updated daily.

It's equally important that anyone heading in the backcountry during the winter tells family or friends where they plan on traveling to before an adventure and who to call in case they are not heard from by the time they said they would be back, Clerico adds.

A medical helicopter lands at an event kicking off the fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Week, at Sugar House Park on Monday.
A medical helicopter lands at an event kicking off the fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Week, at Sugar House Park on Monday. (Photo: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)

The Utah Avalanche Center points out that most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 50 degrees, which is why they advise people to steer clear of any slopes 30 degrees or steeper during prime avalanche conditions.

"It's pretty easy to stay safe by making a few decisions like choosing terrain that's maybe a lower angle," Brackelsberg said. "Sometimes it just means you don't go into the backcountry that day because it is too dangerous. So you go into one of the ski resorts instead."

The agency also recommends people bring:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Extra layers
  • First aid and repair kit
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen

Utah's avalanche conditions this year

Three storms over the past week have helped further boost Utah's snowpack.

The statewide snowpack currently contains 4.6 inches of water, which is 157% of the normal for this point in the season and more than one-fourth of the normal collection in a snow collection season with 120 days left before the regular peak date, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service accessed Monday night. The current snowpack is nearly six times higher than it was this time last year.

While this is certainly good news considering Utah's current and long-term drought, the recent storms also elevated the state's avalanche risk. Most of the state's mountain ranges remain in "considerable" avalanche danger, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.

This is the result of how Utah has received its snow this season. The mountains received quite a bit of snow at the end of October and the start of November before a lull in storm activity.

"When it happens, the snow changes and turns into what we call facets but it's basically just like table sugar," Brackelsberg said.

When the snowstorms returned last week, wet and heavy snow fell onto these facets, essentially creating a "house of cards" when new snow falls. The heavier snow eventually slides off in either natural or human-triggered avalanches.

This has actually been a reoccurring theme for the past few winters, and it can be very dangerous. For example, six people were killed in three different Utah avalanches when similar conditions emerged between Jan. 8 and Feb. 6, 2021.

One of the best ways to lower the risk is for consistent storm activity to continue covering the snowpack with fresh powder. The long-range forecast offers some optimism in this regard.

The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center lists all of Utah as having a higher likelihood of above-average precipitation in the span between this week and Dec. 19. Its three-month outlook lists almost all of Utah in "equal chances," meaning that there is no clear weather signal yet if winter will be above, below or close to normal in the Beehive State.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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