Rare avalanche death highlights dangers as skiers venture into Uintas

Utah’s highest mountain range is “a little bit trickier and a little bit scarier” than the Wasatch when it comes to judging conditions.

Nobody skis in the Uinta Mountains.

That’s according to an article published earlier this year in Ski Magazine, and it certainly may appear that way compared to the neighboring Wasatch Mountain range.

Yet to the contrary, the man who developed the avalanche forecast for the western Uintas 20 years ago said that since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s seen “a big shift” of backcountry skiers, splitboarders and snowmobilers exploring the enigmatic Uintas.

“The Wasatch Front, the Wasatch Back, everything’s getting loved to death,” said Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Craig Gordon. “So people are looking for a different experience. And it’s pushing users into new zones that they might not be particularly familiar with [in terms of] the terrain or the differences in the snowpack.”

That may have been true of two backcountry skiers who were buried in an avalanche Thursday afternoon in upper Weber Canyon, east of Wanship near Windy Ridge. The skiers were part of a guided group that triggered the slide, according to the UAC report.

One of the skiers died, giving Utah its first avalanche fatality in more than two years. The other was excavated and flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital. Neither had been identified as of Friday evening.

(Utah Avalanche Center) The trail of an avalanche that buried two skiers, killing one, in the Uinta Mountains east of Wanship on Thursday, March 9, 2023.

Gordon said he believes both were wearing avalanche safety gear, which usually includes a beacon to help rescuers locate victims under the snow as well as a shovel and probe.

The skier was just the second who has died in the Uintas since at least 1914, according to a UAC log that dates back to the year, though a dozen snowmobilers have met their end there. Prior to Thursday, the only skier death in the range took place in 2002 — before the UAC created avalanche forecasts for the area — when experienced avalanche worker Brian Roust and his dog were killed in a slide on Windy Ridge, which is also in upper Weber Canyon.

The Uintas are the only mountain range in the lower 48 states that runs east to west, starting just east of Kamas and stretching for about 150 miles. They’re also Utah’s tallest range, and include the state’s tallest point, King’s Peak, with an elevation of 13,528 feet. Thursday’s avalanche took place at 10,300 feet, according to the UAC report.

Gordon said the orientation and height of the Uintas makes them especially tricky when it comes to judging avalanche risk.

“In a more than average year, " Gordon said, “the Uinta avalanche danger always tends to be a little bit trickier and a little bit scarier and a little more dangerous than its western cousin, the Wasatch.”

The UAC rated the avalanche danger in the Uintas as moderate Thursday. By Friday, that rating had worsened to “considerable” because of strong winds that can stack snow on top of unstable layers. The danger is especially high on slopes facing north or east.

Thursday’s slide occurred on a southeast facing slope with a 37-degree angle. The water content also makes a difference, and Gordon pointed out that lower-angle slopes in Logan experienced a rash of slides a few weeks ago. On Friday, the avalanche danger in that area was “high.”

Discerning the danger can be particularly difficult for backcountry skiers and splitboarders familiar with the Wasatch.

“Our forecasts aren’t one-size-fits-all,” Gordon said. “So for instance, if you are used to a Wasatch snowpack, which is generally deep and stable and robust, and you venture into some of the outlying zones, which historically are a little more shallow — shallow snow is weak snow, weaker snow is dangerous. Now, you combine that with some unusual terrain characteristics, it can often throw a curveball to us as new users to those areas.”

Still, Matt Meacham, store manager for White Pine Touring, which leads guided snowshoe and backcountry tours in Park City and the Uintas, said he can understand why people would be drawn to skiing those mountains.

“The reason to go out there is it’s more wilderness than Park City is, you know?” Meacham said. “You do something over here and you’re in more of an urban setting, I guess you’d say, because you can see town and big houses everywhere you go. Out there, you’re in a national forest.”

It is unclear how many companies offer guided backcountry tours of the Uintas, or if the skiers caught Thursday were in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest or on private land. A forest service spokesperson said the guiding company would have had to be permitted if it was operating on USFS land.