Early-season snow raising avalanche danger in West
November 21, 2011
SALT LAKE CITY – Early-season snow has created prime avalanche conditions in many parts of the West, with one death already reported and another skier injured over the weekend in Utah.
At least 18 human-triggered slides have been recorded in Utah this month, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. In Colorado, 50 slides already have been reported this season, and officials estimated the actual number could be 10 times higher.
In the past decade, the nation has averaged 25 avalanche deaths a year, according to statistics kept by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“Early in the season people feel like there’s not very much snow so there must not be a problem with avalanches. But that’s definitely not the case,” said Karl Birkeland, acting director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Mont.
“If there’s enough snow for a person to go out and ski on it, then there’s enough snow for an avalanche to occur. Some of these early-season avalanches are extremely dangerous. The snow is thin, and if you’re caught, you’ll not only be sliding down the hill but beating against rocks and trees,” he added.
Jamie Pierre, a world record-holding professional skier who once famously jumped off a 255-foot cliff, died Nov. 13 in Utah while on a steep slope at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. The resort was not yet open and had not yet begun avalanche control.
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Most avalanche deaths occur in the backcountry, not within the boundaries of ski resorts. Since 1950, only 32 of the approximate 900 avalanche fatalities have occurred on in-boundary resort properties that were open, said John Snook, avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
A major storm that hit much of the West last week left a thin, weakened base that elevated the avalanche danger, Birkeland said. He said it will take a bigger storm with dense snow to lessen the danger as unstable snow slides off or new snow strengthens the lower layers.
Dale Atkins, president of the American Avalanche Association, said resorts do a great job of avalanche control but skiers need to be more aware in the backcountry.
“By ducking under a rope, (a skier or boarder) can go from a very safe area to the wild west,” he said.
Upper-elevation, northerly facing slopes pose the greatest danger in Utah right now, said Evelyn Lees, a U.S. Forest Service backcountry avalanche forecaster.
She urged those heading into the backcountry to check the avalanche forecast and learn how to use safety equipment.
Lees said those skiing or riding down steep slopes also should go one at a time in case a slide is triggered.
The early-season problems are pretty typical, officials said.
Colorado has one of the highest fatality rates for avalanches because it tends to have a shallower snowpack, Snook said.
He said the shallow base combined with very cold temperatures leaves snow the consistency of ball bearings.
“It doesn’t make a very good foundation,” Snook said.
Pierre was snowboarding one of Snowbird’s steepest slopes with a friend when he was sent cartwheeling over a cliff after he triggered the late-afternoon slide, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
A man snowmobiling in British Columbia was killed the same day in a slide northeast of Prince George.
A skier triggered an avalanche Sunday in the backcountry of Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon and survived with only minor injuries. No injuries were reported in two other avalanches late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, including one triggered by a snowmobile on compacted terrain at Snowbird.
“Most (early-season) avalanches are 1-2 feet deep where they start and the deepest are probably 3 feet,” Snook said. “But it’s deep enough to kill somebody.”