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Utah’s cold snap and dry weather make for risky conditions in the backcountry

Mackenzie Gregerson and friends at Big Cottonwood Canyon prepare for a late afternoon of skiing, Dec. 19, 2022.
Curtis Booker
Mackenzie Gregerson and friends at Big Cottonwood Canyon prepare for a late afternoon of skiing, Dec. 19, 2022.

Utah likes to say it is known for the greatest snow on Earth. It's why Mackenzie Gregerson is in town for a quick ski trip.

While waiting for some friends at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Gregerson admitted to not being fully aware of the recent avalanche conditions, but "figured there might be some since we've had a tremendous amount of snow already this season, even more than last year."

“So yeah, I should be more prepared, but I'm not really afraid," Gregersen said.

Even so, she knows there’s safety in numbers and also doesn’t "get too crazy with going off of the path.”

The Utah Avalanche Center says typically, avalanches occur around elevations of 10,000 feet or higher, but recent slides have happened under 8,000 feet, which is unusual. Since Dec. 1, there have been 148 recorded avalanches, 64 of which were human-triggered.

"It's been a few years that we have had these kinds of avalanches at the low elevation," said Greg Gagne, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center Salt Lake office.

On Dec. 13, a skier suffered serious injuries after being caught in an avalanche at Pink Pine in Little Cottonwood Canyon — one of 14 events recorded that day. One day later, another skier was caught and buried chest deep at Thomas Fork in Neffs Canyon. An off duty firefighter heard his cries for help, and eventually Salt Lake County Search and Rescue was able to get him out and to a hospital.

The early season snow, followed by two weeks of cold and dry weather, has weakened the snow pack, said Gagne. And now, seeing more snow fall on top of a weak layer is not an uncommon pattern.

The center issued a bulletin on Dec. 16, citing considerable and dangerous conditions in the backcountry in Northern and Central Utah. When the danger is high, visitors to the backcountry are usually pretty good about staying alert, Gagne said, but as the risk goes down they should also take heed as that’s when "people can get caught in avalanches."

Even as conditions moderate, the center preaches patience since there remains a risk of large, dangerous slides.

“I do think at some point we will be at a point where our snowpack will become stable," Gagne said.

For now, he advises people to avoid northerly facing steep slopes due to the unstable snowpack.

"The good news is, with all this snow, there's a lot of snow now at low elevations. And you don't need to go into avalanche terrain to enjoy it,” Gagne said. “It's when you begin to get into those steeper slopes, steeper than 30 degrees, all elevations, once they face northerly, that you can get into trouble."

If you’re heading into the backcountry, the Utah Avalanche Center releases a daily forecast of conditions.

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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