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‘Rare’ warning: ‘Extreme’ avalanche danger likely in Utah backcountry

Hikers are at risk in addition to skiers, says Utah Avalanche Center as it predicts faster, more destructive snowslides.

(Photo courtesy of the Utah Avalanche Center) This photo taken Feb. 6, 2021, shows the 1,000-foot-wide avalanche that swept down northeast-facing Wilson Glade in Mill Creek Canyon, carrying four skiers from two separate parties to their deaths. One skier clung to a tree to escape the slide and then rescued two others who were completely buried, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.

The chance of “deadly avalanches” in Utah’s backcountry is “likely” over the next few days, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.

Heavy snowfall and drifting from the ongoing winter storm across the state “will continue to overload an exceptionally weak snowpack,” resulting in “very dangerous avalanche conditions,” according to the center.

The chance of avalanches is currently high, and will “likely rise to extreme in some areas,” the center warned in a news release. The risk is highest starting Monday afternoon through Wednesday, and potentially into Thursday.

“Extreme” is the highest level of avalanche danger, when they’re “certain to occur.” And when they do, they may run historic distances; they will be “fast-moving, far-running and very destructive”; and they may reach or occur in places that are not normally affected by avalanches.

“We call it extreme danger for a reason,” Nikki Champion, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, said. She warned that in extreme conditions, it’s not just skiers at risk of being caught in an avalanche; those hiking or walking trails could be in danger, too.

“Routes you have used successfully for years may not be so safe now, and everyone should reassess travel routes and take extraordinary precautions,” according to the news release. Among the areas that may be unsafe are near Aspen Grove; on the hike to Donut Falls; and the Wood Camp area in Logan Canyon.

The Utah Avalanche Center is warning people to:

• Use extreme caution.

• Expect unstable snow conditions even in areas where avalanches are unexpected.

• Choose safe routes in low-angled terrain well out from under and not connected to slopes steeper than about 30 degrees.

• Avoid travel in all avalanche terrain, which is any area steeper than 30 degrees. In extreme risk conditions, avalanche terrain includes areas above or connected to terrain steeper than 30 degrees.

The last time the Avalanche Center issued an extreme danger warning was in January 2019 in Provo. The center didn’t issue any warnings of that level in 2018. “These events are pretty rare,” Champion said.

On Feb. 6, eight Utah skiers were swept down a mountain by an avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon, in an area called Wilson Glades. Four of them were killed. On Jan. 8, an avalanche in the backcountry near Park City Mountain Canyons Village killed a Utah man.

— Tribune reporter Rebekah Wahlberg contributed to this story.

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