Though they have been a boon for Utah’s ski resorts, the big storms and cold temperatures the mountains have experienced recently could create a big bust in the backcountry.
The Utah Avalanche Center issued an avalanche warning Thursday afternoon through 6 a.m. Saturday for the Bear River, Wasatch, and Uinta mountain ranges in anticipation of the latest upcoming storm, which is expected to drop up to a foot of snow there between Thursday night and Friday morning.
It is the first of what will likely be a series of avalanche warnings over the next couple of weeks as more snowfall and wind continue to take their toll on what UAC director Mark Staples called “a really, really weak snowpack.”
“We’re going to see more avalanches,” Staples said, “before it gets better.”
The weak snowpack is thanks to a couple of warm days with clear skies over the past week that changed the structure of the snow, leaving it with a consistency similar to sugar.
Thursday’s winds, which reached more than 70 mph and caused both Brighton and Alta ski areas to close for the afternoon, further eroded the snowpack. That weakened snowpack will then be asked to bear the weight of the quick but heavy overnight storm.
Over the past couple of days, the UAC has seen several small avalanches triggered, as well as other warning signs, Staples said.
“What worries us are maybe not the big, dramatic avalanche paths where expert skiers go,” he said, “but the smaller, little steep slopes along a trail somewhere, more like for snowshoeing, [where someone] doesn’t normally expect to deal with that situation.”
The UAC is advising that backcountry travelers stay off of slopes steeper than 30 degrees and avoid traveling below slopes that are at that pitch. It also advises that every person in a group heading into the backcountry carries avalanche rescue gear and knows how to use it.
For those wanting to learn more about avalanche safety, the UAC is conducting talks, classes and presentations next week as part of its fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Week. The kickoff event will be held Monday at 4:30 p.m. at Sugar House Park and will feature free beacon training, rescue dogs and information on how to stay safe in the mountains.
Though the UAC’s warning lasts through 6 a.m. Saturday, Staples said to expect the center to issue another warning for the storm forecast for Sunday and Monday.
In the short term, the upcoming storms will make things worse in terms of avalanche danger. But in the long term, he said they may be just what is needed to stabilize the snowpack. As more snow gets piled on top, it will eventually insulate the snow underneath and cause it to congeal.
“It’s not uncommon in the Wasatch Mountains to have dangerous conditions at the start of the season,” he said. “And then that’s sort of the light at the end of the tunnel. [Because] we can get some really consistent big storms and if we get those, things can turn around. We can have great, fun deep conditions that are a lot safer.”