How does warmer weather affect avalanche danger in Utah's backcountry?

Posted at 10:17 PM, Feb 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-13 00:52:33-05

SALT LAKE CITY — This winter has been a rollercoaster of snowstorms between long stretches of dry days.

But does this pattern create dangerous conditions in Utah's backcountry?

Lovers of winter sports and the outdoors will be out enjoying the warm temperatures this weekend, but that warmth can wreak havoc on the snowpack.

Craig Gordon with the Utah Avalanche Center says the state was lucky to have such a wet December.

“It seems so long ago, but that set us up for a nice, robust, solid and stable snowpack,” he said.

That Christmas gift of a snowstorm allowed the base snow to create conditions under the surface to protect from larger avalanches — but that doesn't mean they still can't happen.

"I think things are going to be a little sensitive, especially if we put a little bit of denser snow on top of that weak snow that's near the surface," Gordon said.

With a series of smaller storms expected next week, the new snow can create what they call “near-surface facets.”

WATCH: Mild weekend; Chance of storms next week

“That's avalanche geek-speak for weak, sugary snow," Gordon explained. "Once we start putting additional layers of snow on top of that, we're going to see some spicy conditions.”

That means the light snow on top is sitting on a table and can slide easily. One could think of it like oil on a non-stick pan — while it may seem stable, the slightest tip can send that sugary snow rolling down the side of a mountain.

“The good news here, though, is that this is super predictable because we'll be just dealing with the new snow old snow interface, not that stuff that broke to the ground earlier in the season," Gordon said.

But while these slides may not be as big as some avalanches, they are still dangerous.

"As we set our sights, maybe on some backcountry adventures, know that you're definitely going to have softer snow," Gordon cautioned. "But also remember that going on that adventure, we've also got to take some personal responsibility for that. We've got to check in with the latest avalanche update for the zone that we plan to ride in."

Those planning to venture into the backcountry need to be prepared to face any conditions and take the proper steps to stay safe.

“We've got to be prepared for our own rescue, but the biggest ticket is avalanche avoidance — getting back to the trailhead, getting back to the lift, high-fiving our friends or family or partners, and getting home to our family safely," Gordon said.

He also tells adventurers that staying within the boundaries of local resorts is always the best bet to avoid an avalanche. And while the man-made snow some of them are using may seem "scratchier," it is actually monitored and created to build the best conditions for safety.

The latest avalanche forecasts can be found on the UAC website, along with information on gear and other resources needed to stay safe in the backcountry.