Wilson Glades is considered a safe place to ski because its low-angle slopes rarely slide, at least naturally, but this seemingly tame destination can be deceptive, said a retired Utah avalanche forecaster who himself was nearly killed there more than 30 years ago.
“I could see myself going there last Saturday if I was still up to that sort of thing,” Tom Kimbrough said in an interview this week reflecting on the Feb. 6 slide that killed four young skiers. “Our terrain [available for skiing] is limited now because of the bad winter, so it’s understandable that you might decide to go there.”
Known as “the Hemingway of the Wasatch,” the 82-year-old Kimbrough, who began working for the Utah Avalanche Center in 1987, survived many close calls in his time, but his scariest unfolded in Wilson Glades while he was touring there in the late 1980s with three others. He doesn’t recall the exact year, but the details are burned into his memory.
Kimbrough had dug a snow pit near the spot where one of the skiers in the Mill Creek Canyon slide on Feb. 6 saved himself by grabbing a tree. While Kimbrough examined the weak layers the pit exposed in the snowpack, it gave way. He, too, reached for the nearest tree but grabbed only air as the snow pulled him down the hill.
“The snow is buckling up around the tree, and I couldn’t get to it,” he recalled. “Next tree, I went for the branches. I grabbed a bunch of branches and eddied out behind the trunk.”
Other than losing some gear, Kimbrough’s party emerged unscathed, but the experience offers a lesson that even shallow slopes can pose grave avalanche risks.
To reduce their exposure, backcountry skiers are taught to ski down avalanche-prone areas one at a time, safe spot to safe spot, to minimize the odds that more than one skier would be caught should the slope fail. If the skier is buried, his or her companions may be in a position to mount a successful rescue. Accordingly, it’s rare for more than one or two skiers to get buried in Utah avalanches.
The massive slide earlier this month occurred while two separate, widely spaced groups were ascending. Because they were heading uphill, with their heels unlocked and climbing skins attached to the bases of their skis, they were not positioned to get out of the way when the snow started moving toward them.
“They’re going up and had skins on, so they’re not as maneuverable,” Kimbrough said. “They couldn’t try to get to some place that was maybe safer, a tree or something.”
In 1992, a deadly slide in the La Sal Mountains’ Gold Basin outside Moab also struck a ski party during its ascent. Six skiers were near the bottom of the slope when they were buried by avalanche debris. Four skiers were buried, while two survivors were able to dig themselves out.
“That La Sals accident,” Kimbrough said, “was triggered [by the skiers] from very low-angle terrain at the bottom of the slope.”
Backcountry training often emphasizes descents, since most slides occur while the skier is heading down. According to an analysis by retired Utah forecaster Evelyn Lees, however, uphill travelers accounted for nearly a third of the 75 backcountry recreationists killed in U.S. avalanches between the winters of 2009-10 and 2016-17.
“These results suggest that backcountry travelers need to spend more time evaluating the terrain they are traveling through during their uphill travels,” Lees wrote. “Also, backcountry travelers could benefit from avalanche education that includes a clear focus on uphill travel, in addition to the existing focus on descent.”
While the terrain on Wilson Peak’s northeast face is an inviting destination, it is remembered now as the scene of the worst avalanche to hit Wasatch skiing.
“It’s too bad the slope wasn’t a couple of degrees less steep, but who is going to measure a couple degrees with their inclinometer?” Kimbrough said. “The average [slope] angle may be 31 degrees, but there’s fringes of that slope that are steeper.”
Although rare, slides do occur there. Since 2010, 10 avalanches have been recorded in Wilson Glades, including one triggered by a skier as recently as December, according to the avalanche center’s report.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, those people should never have been there,’” Kimbrough said. “Well, in retrospect, I guess that’s true, but I could certainly see myself having made the same decision that it was a safe place to go.”