To most skiers and snowboarders, avalanches are a seemingly detached threat. They’re something either punctuating dramatic moments in films like Aspen Extreme or periodically popping up in the headlines from far flung locations. But lately, they’ve become an inescapable part of reality in the wake of a rash of accidents and an historic avalanche cycle in the Wasatch Mountains. The Utah Avalanche Center has even taking a central role in helping the New York Times cover the topic of avalanches and backcountry skiing. Avalanches have always been part of life and a present threat in Utah, and a perfect storm of circumstances has made them the center of conversation in 2021.
The tragic foundation of the surge in avalanche coverage is the spate of fatal avalanche accidents in recent weeks. Six avalanche fatalities occurred in the Central Wasatch over the course of a month, including two separate accidents along the Park City Ridgeline and a slide which killed four skiers in Millcreek Canyon. Nationwide, 15 people were killed during the first week of February, making it one of the deadliest weeks for backcountry users on record. Suddenly, avalanches became the focus of mainstream media coverage, and my phone started blowing up with text messages from people who’d never before used the term avalanche asking what was going on.
What’s going on is Utah’s currently plagued by a nearly unprecedented unstable snowpack. A dearth of snow early in the season with long periods of dry weather left deeply embedded layers of weak snow throughout the Utah mountains. Typically, early season snowpack instability begins to heal as snow accumulates throughout the winter, but this season’s uniquely unstable weak layers have been overloaded by sudden copious snowfall, overloading the slopes and leading to frequent, dangerously large avalanches. On Feb. 17, the Utah Avalanche Center forecast “Extreme” avalanche danger on all aspects and elevations, meaning avalanches were a certainty.
A near constant string of natural and human triggered avalanches has been occurring throughout the Wasatch, and Little Cottonwood Canyon has been closed since Monday night with people in the canyon subject to interlodge restrictions inside buildings. Massive storm totals over the past week wrought historic avalanches, bringing debris piles across the S.R. 210 on numerous slide paths, impacting buildings and covering parking lots at Snowbird and Alta. Huge slides were visible across the Park City Ridgeline, and roadside slopes in Big Cottonwood were releasing dangerous avalanches. The mountains are coming unglued in a way not seen in the past 30 years.
The uniquely unstable snowpack colliding with human factors is what has made 2021 the season of the avalanche. A surge in the popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding fueled in part by the pandemic making resorts less accessible has led to record numbers of backcountry travelers. Some inexperienced or unprepared backcountry users have been the victims of accidents, while other incidents have involved experienced users. Atypically sensitive avalanche conditions and increased pressure to avoid crowds are both likely contributing factors to the high number of accidents and close calls in Utah this year.
Ski resorts are wrestling with the combination of factors. Some resorts like Snowbird have been overwhelmed by new snow and widespread avalanche hazard, and have been unable to open for the past few days. Ski patrols are working furiously to mitigate danger and get the lifts spinning, but there’s only so much they can do in the midst of a relentless storm and avalanche cycle. Park City Mountain reversed course on decades of practice and indefinitely closed backcountry access from the resort. The resort has still not revealed how they plan to control access to the public lands beyond their boundaries, which have been the site of nine fatalities since 2000. Longtime backcountry skiers who have accessed National Forest land via the resort’s lifts generally advocate for some filter to help prevent unprepared or uneducated skiers from inadvertently accessing potentially dangerous terrain, but the community is anxious for resolution.
Utah’s finally getting blanketed in the snow it’s famous for, but the 2020-21 winter season has become dominated by avalanches, both literally and in the minds of skiers and snowboarders. Nary a chairlift ride goes by without someone broaching the subject, regardless of where they hail from. Anyone accessing the backcountry should have the proper tools and education, and those looking for a place to get started should visit the Utah Avalanche Center’s website. Enjoy the powder, but stay safe while doing so.
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