BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — Just six weeks in and 2021 has already been one of the deadliest, and most dangerous avalanche seasons on record. The Utah Avalanche Center reports over 110 human-caused avalanches, and six deaths since January first.
All six deaths occurred in the backcountry, or in areas just outside ski resort boundaries where avalanche mitigation work is not happening. But avalanche danger is not limited to the backcountry.
With up to 18 inches of fresh snow expected in Big Cottonwood Canyon by Sunday, the avalanche mitigation team at Solitude Mountain Resort expects to have busy days ahead.
"We're going to be shutting terrain down until we can assess each slope we have," said Solitude's avalanche mitigation manager Ian Reddell.
Reddell said this year has been especially dangerous because of the weak snowfall in the early season.
"We ended up with a shallow snowpack that just kind of sat there for a little while before more storms came," he added.
The sparse snowfall in December meant a slow start to mitigation efforts on the mountain, but Reddell said that began to change around mid-January.
"We really started seeing an uptick in avalanches and our avalanche mitigation work produced many avalanches," he said.
Reddell and the avalanche mitigation team start their day while most skiers and snowboarders are asleep to ensure conditions are safe at the resort by the time lifts start turning at 9 a.m.
"Our day starts at three in the morning, three-thirty in the morning, to be prepared to get up the canyon to be here for the day," Reddell said.
After reading forecasts and studying current snow conditions, the team then begins their mitigation work for the day using a tried-and-true method.
"They're called explosives," Reddell added. "Mostly we can test the slope with the explosives and see if it meets our forecasts."
The team is also responsible for coordinating with mountain operations to determine which terrain is safe for skiers and snowboarders based on current conditions.
"We have rope lines out on the mountain that identify areas of avalanche hazard," Reddell said.
When a certain slope looks dangerous, they close the access gate to that area and begin mitigation work.
"The gates will read, 'avalanche closed,'" he added.
Reddell said it's very important to pay attention to the rope lines and gates at the resorts because slides can happen inside resort boundaries.
"People end up going in there with no mitigation work going on there is a high likelihood they're going to get involved in an avalanche and nobody's going to know they're in there," he said. "So, it's super important that people respect those lines, and they stay out of there."
With high avalanche danger expected throughout Northern Utah this weekend, Reddell said it's best to trust the work of professionals at resorts who work day-in and day-out to ensure everyone has a fun, but most importantly safe ski day.