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What Utahns need to know about current avalanche risk before heading into backcountry

Posted at 6:36 PM, Jan 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-09 21:37:50-05

SALT LAKE CITY — According to the Utah Avalanche Center, there have been more than 30 human-triggered avalanches in Utah since the start of the year.

One of them that happened Friday in the Park City area was fatal.

The UAC said right now conditions are dangerous, and is warning all skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers to take extra caution in the backcountry.

"We are advising people to stay off, and out from underneath, slopes steeper than 30 degrees that are facing west through north and east at elevations about 9,000 feet and above," said Greg Gagney, a forecaster with the UAC.

READ: High avalanche danger reported in parts of Utah

Gagney said that early season snow in the mountains has turned into an unstable, granular base that forecasters call "sugar snow."

"This past week we added about a foot of snow and some wind as well," he said. "So, what happens is we put a strong slab of snow on top of this weaker snow underneath."

The combination acts like a rug sitting on a bed of marbles, and it does not take much to trigger a slide.

WATCH: Avalanche caught on camera in Little Cottonwood Canyon

"It's a really unstable structure, and it's really just waiting for something to upset that balance," Gagney added. "It can be a skier, a rider, a snow-machiner that gets on a slope and it causes the avalanche. We call it a persistent weak layer, and we call it that for a reason: because it persists."

Even with new snow, Gagney said the persistent weak layer can last for weeks, and even months.

Because of the conditions, the UAC has placed all of northern and central Utah under "considerable avalanche danger."

"Considerable means that human-triggered avalanches are likely," he said.

The UAC recommends that everyone should always have a beacon, probe and shovel when recreating in the backcountry.

READ: Safety issues mount as skiers hit backcountry in pandemic

"Everyone in your party have that gear and know how to use that gear," Gagney said. "There's proper training that goes along with it."

Gagney added that the UAC offers training for anyone interested in backcountry recreation, and suggested that people take a look at the daily forecast on their website and danger rating before heading out.