Why Utah is in the middle of one of its most deadly ski seasons

Avalanches are hitting the backcountry, just as a high number of people are seeking an escape from the pandemic and pricey resorts.

The backcountry, once considered a wild terrain suitable for only the most rugged and experienced adventurers, has gotten crowded.

It didn’t happen suddenly, though it may feel like that to those who have taken pride in “earning their turns.” Improvements in gear combined with the high cost of lift tickets has made backcountry touring the fastest-growing segment of the snow sports industry. And when COVID-19 arrived, hundreds or even thousands turned to the forests and mountains for some socially distanced recreation outside of the ski areas.

Now every weekend SUVs saddled with ski racks spill out of the parking areas along Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and Mill Creek Canyon. Ski tracks zigzag through nearly every open glade, glen and bowl. Backcountry skier Tom Diegel said he’s pulled into Alta at 6 a.m. hoping for some fresh powder only to see as many as 50 headlamps already lighting up the surrounding hills.

This year’s tricky and unpredictable snowpack, however, means these additional adventure seekers haven’t just made the backcountry more crowded. They’ve also made it more dangerous.

“On the days that are good — and especially the weekends, but midweek, too — there’s palpably more people,” said Diegel, the vice president of the advocacy group Wasatch Backcountry Alliance. “And just like any situation where you get more people and scarce resources, that’s when things start to go a bit awry.”

Four people died Feb. 6 when an avalanche the width of 10 football fields swept up seven of eight skiers who were skinning up a trail alongside Wilson Glades in Mill Creek Canyon. The skiers were divided into two groups. One included five skiers who originated in Big Cottonwood Canyon and were climbing to take another run, and the second included three who were making their way up from Mill Creek Canyon.

The avalanche was triggered by a person, according to the Utah Avalanche Center, which in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service tracks and investigates slides. But Mark Staples, the avalanche center director, cautioned it could have been set off as a reverberation of “the first person on there or the hundredth person on there.” The center released its full report Friday.

Triggers are everywhere these days, said Craig Gordon, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center for the past 35 years. It’s simple math. More people in areas prone to avalanches mean more avalanches.

He said, “It’s just a statistical realization.”

The backcountry beckons

One of the hottest commodities last spring, just after coronavirus outbreaks shut down ski resorts, was climbing skins. As hard to find as toilet paper and hand sanitizer, stores couldn’t keep the long strips — lined with nylon or mohair and attached to skis for easier uphill traversing — on the shelves. Online outlets had them on back order.

Diegel said that was a natural extension of a trend that has developed over the past decade.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A hiker makes their way up Porter Fork Trail in Mill Creek Canyon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. An avalanche claimed the lives of four people on Sunday in one of the upper bowls in Mill Creek.

Though alpine ski growth has mostly remained stagnant since the late 1970s, backcountry touring has experienced a surge of interest, propelled mainly by gear that made accessing and skiing the backcountry both easier and safer. But it also gained momentum from a backlash against the expense, hassle and restrictions of skiing or riding at resorts.

Between the start of the 2016 season and the 2019 season, Snowsports Industries America reported sales of alpine touring equipment and backcountry accessories grew 81%. In a report last month, SIA’s Nick Sargent said alpine touring sales swelled by 104% between August 2019 and March 2020. And that didn’t include splitboards — a snowboard that can be split into two planks and used like skis for uphill travel — which he said added another $5 million in sales nationwide.

“There wasn’t much that was needed to push people over the edge, but the whole COVID thing pushed people over the edge,” Diegel said. “Some people bought puppies and some people made sourdough bread and some people bought a lot of backcountry gear that they’d been thinking about buying for a while anyway.”

In Utah, that surge continued through the summer. It was spurred by more people moving into the Salt Lake Valley and by uncertainty about whether resorts would open this season and, if so, for how long. Though tracking of backcountry traffic has been spotty, some preliminary U.S. Forest Service data out of the Salt Lake office shows visitation up 200% over last year.

The influx has its pros and cons.

Among the drawbacks, more people mean more chances a person inadvertently sets off a slide. In addition, the crowding or tracking of snow in spots that are less avalanche prone may funnel more experienced backcountry tourists into higher danger areas where they otherwise wouldn’t go.

“They will do risky, dumb things in order to get untracked turns,” Diegel said. “I’ve done it myself.”

On the positive side, more people are on hand to help if something goes wrong. And more of them have training.

Slots in avalanche education classes this fall were snatched up quickly. Staples said he’s happy to see safety training and avalanche awareness become common for backcountry adventurers. They can prevent people from being caught in a slide. Still, he cautioned, once an avalanche has them, sometimes no amount of education or even experience will keep someone from being killed.

That’s especially true with this year’s conditions, forecaster Gordon said.

“We’ve got a super savvy crew of backcountry skiers and boarders and riders who know how to manage these certain parameters that they have seen before,” he said. “And I think the curve ball right now is, a lot of us have never seen this before.”

Utah’s poor snowpack

Gordon claims he isn’t a soothsayer, but in a November interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, the forecaster predicted a harrowing year for backcountry skiers.

“In a low snow year, you might not see as many [avalanches], but once it snows, you might see more deadly [slides],” he said. “But again, I think all bets are off this year because we’re going to have so many more triggers out there.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Search and rescue crews respond to the top of Mill Creek Canyon on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, where four skiers died in an avalanche near Wilson Peak.

Gordon made that projection right after the state got its first big snowfall of the season. Though other storms were forecast, they never showed. Instead, the state saw one of its driest starts to winter on record. When flakes finally started flying in January, two things happened: 1) They landed on a base that had greatly deteriorated after a month of relatively warm days and cold nights; and 2) they cranked the motor inside skiers and snowboarders everywhere.

Gordon had a feeling that mixture would be combustible.

“I wasn’t particularly optimistic that once that snow came and fell on a weak existing snowpack, that people would entirely wrap their brains around that,” he said Monday. “Every time it snows, people are super stoked. The problem is, that snowpack doesn’t share our same emotion.”

Even though the avalanche center rated the danger risk in most areas as “High” — second only to the almost-never-used “Extreme” — skiers and snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobilers went.

The state saw its first avalanche casualty Jan. 8, when snowboarder Kevin Steuterman, 31, of Clinton died while riding in Dutch Draw, an unmaintained area reachable by the Ninety-Nine 90 chairlift on the Canyons side of Park City Mountain Resort.

Kurt Damschroder, a seasoned 57-year-old backcountry skier from Park City, exited through the same access point before dying in a nearby unmaintained section under Square Top peak Jan. 31.

Exactly a week later, the Mill Creek Canyon slide killed Sarah Moughamian, 29, of Sandy; and Louis Holian, 26; Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23; and Stephanie Hopkins, 26, all of Salt Lake City.

The Utah Avalanche Center counted 37 known avalanches that day. Snowmobiles triggered eight of them, including one close call, and skiers triggered five. The rest broke naturally or had unknown causes.

All who have died in Utah this year have been experienced backcountry skiers and riders who were taking multiple precautions to avoid triggering a slide. All but Steuterman were skiing with partners and carrying backcountry essentials: a shovel, a beacon and a probe.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign lets backcountry skiers and boarders know their avalanche beacons are turned on and working before heading into the North Fork Trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

While those tools, plus an AvaLung or other air bag, can save lives, Gordon said backcountry travelers shouldn’t rely on them.

“If we’re depending on rescue gear,” he said in November, “we’ve already screwed up.”

The four fatalities in the Mill Creek slide match the most skiers killed in an avalanche in state history, according to a Utah Avalanche Center database. When four were killed near Moab in 1992 while scouting avalanche conditions for the La Sal Avalanche Forecast Center, they were also skinning up a ridge. In the case of the Mill Creek skiers, the avalanche center’s report said, the fact that their boots were locked into their skis for uphill travel may have contributed to them being pulled deeper under the snow.

If Utah sees two more avalanche deaths — which it well might with the season only half over and avalanche danger expected to remain high — 2020-21 will hold the gruesome title of the state’s deadliest winter in at least two decades.

Drew Hardesty, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, says this season is an anomaly. Just because more people are going into the backcountry doesn’t necessarily mean more people will fall victim to slides.

Hardesty completed an analysis of Utah avalanche deaths in 2015 and said statistics have actually shown just the opposite.

“Our average number of accidents over the last 30 years has either flatlined or slightly diminished,” he said, “despite the exploding use of the backcountry.”

How to avoid being caught in an avalanche

So how do Utahns avoid more death and heartache this season? Mother Nature doesn’t appear willing to help, with more storms expected to bring more powder but in limited doses.

In the long run, the moisture can “heal” the weak base. In the short run, however, it will prime the peaks for more slides.

“For things to change dramatically will take a dramatic change of weather,” Staples said. That would include either a monster storm that would cause most slopes to avalanche right away, thus making them less susceptible to slide later. Or, it would include a warm stretch to melt the snow, followed by a cold stretch to basically freeze the base into an icepack.

Equally unlikely is that the Forest Service could close off access to backcountry terrain, said Ben Kraja, the agency’s winter sports program manager. He said the Forest Service doesn’t have the staff to close off every area considered a high avalanche risk.

Nor do most want the agency to take such measures, Staples said.

“That’s the beautiful thing about it. You’re out on your own, you know, with freedom and responsibility,” he said. “There’s no law telling you you have to carry that [rescue gear]. And I think we like that.

“You get to go where you want and get to ski what you want. And we have to kind of work together if we’re sharing the space.”

Education and experience are key to making sure everyone who wants to can get into the backcountry — and out again — safely, both Staples and Kraja said. So is taking personal responsibility.

Sometimes that may mean forgoing first tracks or a favorite powder stash for something more stable. Or, especially in a season as unpredictable as this one, it may mean bucking the crowd and staying home.

Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this report.