The Utah Avalanche Center presented a report on the state of the snowpack in Utah Tuesday night in partnership with the Park City Professional Ski Patrollers Association. After last week’s deadly avalanche just outside of Park City Mountain Resort, the importance of avalanche education was front and center.
After an avalanche in the Dutch Draw backcountry area just outside the boundaries of Park City Mountain Resort resulted in the death of a 31-year-old Utah man last Friday, the dangers of backcountry skiing and riding were once again evident.
Daily forecasts from the Utah Avalanche Center in the days leading up to the accident warned of unstable snow and dangerous conditions. Forecaster Drew Hardesty characterized people venturing out into the backcountry as “rolling the dice” and worried that luck would run out soon and a serious accident would occur.
Unfortunately, luck did run out after a couple entered Dutch Draw through the access gates at the top of the 9990 chairlift. A 50-foot wide slide was triggered, burying the victim. He was found several hours later about two feet beneath the surface.
At Tuesday’s virtual state of the snowpack presentation, Utah Avalanche Center Forecaster Craig Gordon stressed the importance of understanding that once you cross the rope line separating the resort from the backcountry, you’re on your own, no matter how close resort ski patrol might be.
“What we have to realize, even though we can see it and they can see us, the patrol responsible for the ski area boundary and they’re responsible for all the terrain inside the ski area boundary,” said Gordon. “Once we step outside the ski resort boundary, we are on our own. Even though we can see it and they can see us, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be there in a minute or two.”
Gordon added even though rescuers might be close by, significant dangers exist in attempting a rescue after a slide, particularly if the location is below other avalanche-prone terrain. The area must be safe before rescue crews enter.
Speaking of the current snowpack, Gordon said extended periods of no new snow followed by a storm are particularly dangerous. With a relatively dry winter so far, when the snow does come, avalanche danger will be high.
He says in addition to always having the proper avalanche gear, education, the most recent avalanche forecast for your area, and never venturing into the backcountry alone, avalanche avoidance is the most effective way to reduce the risk.
In general, that means avoiding slopes steeper than 30 degrees and choosing not to ski or ride immediately after a storm or when forecasts indicate a significant risk of slides.
Even though ski patrollers are not responsible for people who brave the backcountry, the community still sees a responsibility to better educate skiers and riders who pass through the gates into unpatrolled terrain. That’s according to the Park City Professional Ski Patrollers Association’s Cressa Pratt. The ski patrol union co-hosted the event.
“Our work as ski patrollers leads us to work mostly within our terrain boundaries to help injured guests and mitigate avalanche problems, but we as a union recognize that we are part of a greater community of backcountry users and people who love to be in the mountains,” she says. “We feel a responsibility to engage and educate with the community beyond the ropelines of or resort. Knowing what the snowpack is doing and knowing what to look for in bounds and out of bounds is important for everybody who is in the mountains.”
The most recent local avalanche forecasts can be found here, and daily forecasts are broadcast every morning on KPCW.