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Avalanche danger high after Thursday’s storm

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Posted at 10:32 PM, Dec 19, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-20 07:44:24-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Backcountry skiers be warned: Avalanche danger is high in Utah and will be for several days to come.

Avalanche experts with the Utah Avalanche Center showed FOX 13 News the science behind those forecasts.

"Yeah, this would be a pretty good spot in here I think," said Brett Kobernik.

He took our crews to Grizzly Gulch near Alta, about 500 yards from where an avalanche swept a woman away on Dec. 9. She survived thanks to quick acting witnesses and an avalanche airbag, but Kobernik said the danger now is just as high as it was during that incident.

On Thursday evening, he dug a snow pit, showing us one of many tests performed to determine how high the danger is.

"We look down through the snowpack, and we identify these weak layers," Kobernik said. “And then we beat on the snowpack to see if we're going to get a failure in here. Our weakest layers are gonna be just underneath the new snow. It's layers that formed in mid-December, but what is particularly dangerous is we also have weak layers down here. This snow is just very sugary. It's like table salt or sugar and won't hold very much weight."

During Thursday’s storm, the Utah Avalanche Center tweeted that a skier triggered a 3-foot deep, 150-foot wide avalanche. Luckily, no one was caught in it, but, as Kobernik notes,  "it did break into these very weak layers, so the significance is that we know that these layers are starting to become active."

As Kobernik said, "I'm a powder skier."

But given the science, he knows this is no time to be in the backcountry.

"I'm not gonna be getting on any steep slopes for at least a week,” he said. “To be reasonable, it's gonna be well into January before I feel comfortable getting onto those steep slopes."

Kobernik knows many will not follow his example. The Utah Avalanche Center hopes skiers will choose groom slopes at resorts where avalanche controls have been performed.  If you do venture into the backcountry, experts said to bring a shovel, beacon and probe and avoid steep slopes.