Utah’s worst avalanche danger may be in the rearview

Salt Lake, Ogden and Provo mountains dropped to “Low” risk, but avalanche center urges caution

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sandy Police Department officers stopped traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon for the day as avalanche mitigation efforts were underway, Feb 16, 2021. A winter weather advisory remained in effect through the following morning along the Wasatch Front and in the Tooele Valley.

One of Utah’s most dangerous avalanche seasons appears to be near its end.

The Utah Avalanche Center lowered its forecasts for the Salt Lake, Ogden and Provo area mountains to “Low” late last week, indicating slides are unlikely. It is a drastic change from the forecast less than three weeks ago, when the agency tabbed the Salt Lake mountains with its rarely used “Extreme” danger warning.

Drew Gagne, a forecaster for the Salt Lake, Ogden and Provo mountain areas, said the area’s most recent snowfalls helped ease the pressure.

“We’re optimistic that big, dangerous avalanches are behind us,” he said. “But you never know.”

This season’s snowpack has been one of the most touchy in decades. Northern Utah got its snow base in early November, but that deteriorated through temperature fluctuations and exposure to the elements as the state went through a long dry spell. When significant amounts of snow started falling again in January, the base was often too unstable to hold it.

Two slides in January and one in February took the lives of five skiers and one snowboarder. The six deaths stand as the second most avalanche deaths in the state in the past two decades, one short of the record set in 2007.

Since January, nearly 350 avalanches have been reported to the avalanche center, including one in Little Cottonwood Canyon as recently as Saturday. A third of those occurred between Feb. 16-18, around when the center issued an “Extreme” avalanche warning for the Salt Lake area mountains. During that time, a strong, wet storm hammered the area. It dropped as much as five feet in three days and eight over the course of the week in some areas.

“All season long, we’re getting little storms, little storms, and we had pretty heightened avalanche danger for a foot of snow,” Gagne said. “And we kept on saying, like, ‘This is just a really bad pattern to get into,’ and we knew we needed a big storm — and we got one.”

The depth and the water density of that snowfall should keep avalanche danger at bay as spring approaches. Spring traditionally is the season (aside from summer, of course) in which avalanches are least likely to occur because the top snow melts into the lower layers during the warm days, then freezes solid again in the cold nights.

Gagne cautioned, however, that another massive storm, too quick of a warmup or three or more nights with temperatures above freezing could raise the avalanche risk once again.

“The danger could quickly rise in certain scenarios,” he said, “and people need to have a mindset that the danger may be low right now, but keep open the idea it can quickly rise.”

The Uintas, Logan, Skyline, Moab and Abajos mountain areas all carried “Moderate” danger warnings Sunday. Gagne said at least in the case of the Uintas and Logan that is because those regions received less snow than the Central Wasatch during February and generally experience more wind.