Eight dead in Western avalanches so far this winter
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
SALT LAKE CITY – Mountain adventurers beware: Avalanche danger is high around the West, with slides up to 10 feet tall and a half-mile wife killing eight people already this year.
The latest fatality was a skier who died in northern Utah on Sunday when a slab of snow broke away just outside the Snowbasin resort.
Avalanche conditions are particularly ripe after last week’s storms piled deep, slide-prone layers of heavy snow atop months-old layers of snow that are crystallized and weak.
“It’s like putting a brick on top of a pile of potato chips,” Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, said Monday. “It doesn’t work. It can’t hold the weight.”
Though it varies from one mountain range to another, avalanche officials say conditions remain dicey in the backcountry of most Western states with snow.
“The general warning is, in most places in the West, it’s very dangerous,” said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho.
On average, about 25 people in the U.S. die in avalanches each winter, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Boulder.
The first fatality this season was in early December when a 54-year-old Canadian ice climber in western Montana died after the team above him triggered a small avalanche that swept him off a cliff.
Since then, three snowmobilers, three skiers and one snowboarder have been killed in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming.
The dangerous conditions are a double-edged sword for winter-lovers who crave fresh powder on the slopes.
In Utah, Snowbird resort reported seven feet of new snow in seven days. That ended Sunday, when half of the resort was closed for the full day because of avalanche danger, resort spokesman Jared Ishkanian said.
Little Cottonwood Canyon – home of Alta and Snowbird – was closed to traffic for nearly four hours at midday Sunday because of the kind of avalanche danger that briefly buried an Alta ski patroller.
Saturday was the first time in 17 years that skiers in private vehicles were turned away from Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to dispatchers for the Utah Department of Transportation.
“Too many people wanted to get up there because we had some of the best powder this winter,” UDOT spokesman Adan Carrillo said Monday.
While ski resorts practice regular avalanche control, safety officials warn travelers not to veer into out-of-bounds areas that aren’t controlled. Tremper said even the weight of one person has triggered “astoundingly huge” avalanches this season.
While some avalanche-prone areas may be obvious, many aren’t – and that’s the danger for those in the backcountry who think they’re in a safe area.
“Recognizing where those safe and unsafe spots are really takes an experienced person,” said John Snook, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado center.
And although some avalanche observers are reporting some of the biggest slides they’ve seen in years, those aren’t always the deadliest. Avalanches that killed a snowboarder in Colorado and a skier in Idaho earlier this month were considered relatively small, officials said.
“Slides don’t need to be that large to be killers,” Snook said.
Perilous conditions in mountain backcountry are expected to persist for at least several days.
Abromeit said that in the near-term, more snow will likely make conditions more dangerous in the West. But as the snow piles on, it could crush the weak layer beneath and diminish the risk.
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Don’t freak out if you see helicopters hovering over the Roaring Fork Valley backcountry or fixed-wing aircraft making repeated trips. It is part an annual wildlife study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.