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Despite a Drier Winter, Utah Avalanche Center Says Avalanches Increased by 40% in Annual Report

Utah Avalanche Center

The Utah Avalanche Center released their annual report this week. The report highlights how the number of avalanches significantly increased last winter compared to the previous one, even with a below-average snowpack.


The annual report by the Utah Avalanche Center says the number of avalanches recorded last winter had increased by 40% over the 2019-20 winter, with 797 avalanches seen across the state.


The report says that figure has more to do with the stability of last winter’s snowpack than the amount of snow on the mountains. Utah experienced a total snowpack of only about 79% of normal at the end of last winter.


The report details how an early November storm followed by an unusually cold and dry December created an increasingly weak layer of snow that persisted throughout the rest of the season. According to the report, every time the weak layer was loaded by new snow, avalanches occurred.


The Avalanche Center recorded seven avalanche fatalities last winter for the second deadliest year on record. The fatalities included two in the Park City area on January 8th and 30th that prompted the closure of the backcountry gates at Park City Mountain Resort for the remainder of the season. An avalanche in nearby Millcreek Canyon on February 6th also claimed the lives of four backcountry skiers.


The Millcreek Canyon accident, also known as the Wilson Glades avalanche, fully buried six people with two being rescued by other individuals in the groups involved. The four fatalities matched Utah’s deadliest avalanche on record after four people were killed in a slide near Moab in 1992.


Avalanche danger remained extremely high until the weak layer finally settled down at the end of February. Avalanche activity picked up again after storms in mid-March before warmer temperatures helped stabilize the snowpack later in the month.


The Avalanche Center also said the increased number of people looking to recreate out in the mountains because of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the high avalanche danger and led the organization to deliver twice the usual number of avalanche education classes last winter.

Sean Higgins covers all things Park City and is the Saturday Weekend Edition host at KPCW. Sean spent the first five years of his journalism career covering World Cup skiing for Ski Racing Media here in Utah and served as Senior Editor until January 2020. As Senior Editor, he managed the day-to-day news section of skiracing.com, as well as produced and hosted Ski Racing’s weekly podcast. During his tenure with Ski Racing Media, he was also a field reporter for NBC Sports, covering events in Europe.