Backcountry conditions improving but avalanches still a risk | News, Sports, Jobs
Avalanche experts say conditions in the backcountry have improved greatly over the past few weeks, but more recent erratic weather has caused snow instability comparable to early winter.
Inconsistent storms in early March provided fresh powder in the mountains, but abnormally warm temperatures towards the end of the month melted much of the snow. Although the weather has helped stabilize weak base layers that formed during dry January and February weather, Drew Hardesty, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, said new snow this week could trigger a period of active avalanche.
Hardesty said it’s easier to predict backcountry conditions now that slabs – which form when a heavy layer of snow sits on top of a weak layer – have become more stable. But nearly six inches of snow on Monday, combined with low temperatures and windy conditions, resulted in considerable avalanche danger earlier this week.
“It goes hand in hand with storms,” he said.
One factor that determines the level of danger is how fast the snow falls and whether it forms loose or solid connections. Hardesty said there’s a big difference between getting a foot of snow in three hours — which will likely have light, sweet squalls — versus the same amount throughout the day.
Heavy snowfall at the start of the week was comparable to weather expected in January, according to Hardesty. He said there had been avalanches on steep, windy terrain in the backcountry. There were also a few close calls with an incident where a skier was partially buried, according to Hardesty. So far, there have been no avalanche fatalities in Utah this year.
Conditions had stabilized somewhat by Thursday afternoon, although Hardesty predicted soft slabs may have formed overnight. Avalanche danger in the central Wasatch Range, which includes the Park City Ridgeline, was moderate Friday morning. However, Hardesty warned that more powder storms and gusts this weekend could lead to increased danger, while rapid warming could do the same.
“As they say, there is no rest for the wicked. It can run on a penny. Anytime the weather changes quickly, you can have an avalanche,” Hardesty said.
He encourages backcountry users to check the Utah Avalanche Center’s danger ratings before heading out and to keep an eye on the weather forecast. More people are likely to head into the backcountry with the closure of Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort on Sunday, but Hardesty doesn’t anticipate that will bring more danger to the backcountry.
There were several close calls when resorts closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020 and Hardesty said it was the result of people who were “hungry to ski” rather than newbies.
Beyond the risk of avalanches, Hardesty said skiers should also be aware of injuries that can result from falls. He said the record heat in March had damaged the snowpack and exposed the ground below, which is now covered in snow this week.
“Risk is inherent in mountain travel. It’s hard to know the future, but it looks active,” Hardesty said.