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Busy backcountry ski season challenged by avalanche danger

Posted at 10:02 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 00:02:27-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Emergency Management is warning that an upcoming snowstorm could create unstable conditions in the backcountry this weekend, with potential for unsurvivable avalanches that span hundreds of feet wide and several feet deep.

The warning comes on the heels of last weekend's slide that killed four people up Millcreek Canyon, the deadliest Utah avalanche in nearly 30 years.

Read: Four skiers killed in Millcreek Canyon avalanche

Add to that, experts say, the complication that this season has been busier than ever in the Wasatch backcountry.

Some will tell you it's all about free reign in the mountains.

Being able to carve turns in untracked powder.

For Tom Diegel, skiing in the backcountry is a "sublime sensation."

The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance Vice President described seeing more and more people chase the same feeling. Trailheads have been more crowded this year, he said.

Backcountry skiing really ramped up during the pandemic, he explained, after the ski resorts closed early last March.

"It was the tipping point where a lot of people were like, 'Hey, I want to keep skiing. And if I get this gear that I can hike uphill with, then I can do that,'" he said

Diegel talked about how the enthusiasm has carried over into this season. In talking with store owners, Diegel explained hearing that backcountry gear has been selling fast.

But as more people go out, he talked about how they're finding a challenge this season that didn't exist last season.

"It's the most limited it's almost ever been here, with the most people going into the backcountry," he said. "So, it's quite crowded."

Read: Millcreek avalanche a reminder of Utah's dangerous history

Limited, he explained, in that this season has so far been challenged by a weak, lean snowpack. Diegel said it's forcing people into the same, small pockets of terrain.

That means skiers are coming across territory already carved by others.

"And it has the potential to push people-- if they want to get untracked turns-- it has the potential for people to go, perhaps, step over the line-- and it's a very subtle line-- between safe and scary avalanche conditions and terrain," he said.

Last weekend, two different groups skiing ended up on the tragic side of that line, when a mammoth avalanche slide in the Wilson Glade area up Millcreek Canyon.

Another avalanche in the Uintahs took out a group of snowmobilers-- who miraculously survived-- but had to dig out.

Read: Snowmobilers survive close call with avalanche in Uintas, capture it on video

Even as an expert, Diegel has been there.

"A friend was buried six feet deep in an avalanche, and I was able to dig him out, barely alive," he recounted.

In addition to the slide where he dug his friend out, Diegel said he's been involved in other avalanches.

Seeing this season's persistent, weak layer scares him, he said. The slides become unpredictable and deep.

Diegel and Craig Gordon from the Utah Avalanche Center know others could end up in the same spot this weekend.

"We've got a series of storms headed our way this weekend, and we know the avalanche danger is going to start to ramp up," Gordon said.

These are unusual snowpack conditions for Utah, Gordon said, with a shaky foundation akin to a house of cards.

With more people heading out for fun, in search of the same, untracked snow, Gordon and Diegel urge being conscientious and practicing avalanche avoidance.

"Simply tone our slope angles down. Stick with some gentle, rolling terrain with no steep slopes above or adjacent to us," Gordon said.

That means keeping to slopes lower than 30 degrees, Gordon said, and staying out from under slopes steeper than 30 degrees.

For snowmobilers, Gordon highly recommended wide, open meadow with no steep slopes above or adjacent to you.

He said snowmobilers can still trigger avalanches in these conditions from low on the slope or from a distance, similar to pulling a rug out from underneath.

And, of course, he mentioned the importance of staying up-to-date with the latest conditions and avalanche forecast at their website.

"This is not a year to experiment," Diegel said. "It's really challenging."