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Heads up! Avalanches are happening even in lower elevations

An avalanche was triggered Monday in Daly Canyon, a popular snowshoeing area.
Courtesy of Utah Avalanche Forecast Center
An avalanche was triggered Monday in Daly Canyon, a popular snowshoeing area.

An avalanche in a popular snowshoe and dog walking canyon this week is a reminder that avalanches have no boundaries.

Empire Canyon, frequently called Daly Canyon, is located at the top of Daly Ave in Park City. With a large parking lot, it’s an area frequented by locals for hiking in the summer and snowshoeing and backcountry skiing in the winter.

On Monday, a skier checking the conditions, was able to trigger an avalanche on an east facing, 38-degree slope at 7500 feet elevation in an area know as the Walker-Webster Gulch.

The slide was reported as 18 inches deep and 25 feet wide. It slid 50 feet.

The skier had noticed widespread cracking and collapsing snow throughout the area. The danger is this terrain sits above a deep gully that could easily pile up debris, and even a small avalanche would be capable of burying a person under an immense amount of snow.

Nikki Champion, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center, says the new snow between 15 and 20 inches in the Park City area has made for great riding conditions – but it’s only safe on low-angled slopes.

What’s interesting she says is that they’re seeing lots of avalanches below 8,000 feet – areas like Daly Canyon.

“I think people often take some refuge in the low and mid elevation slopes because they don't often have as much snow,” she said. “But because they're out of the wind zone, all of that snow just fell right under that weak faceted snow from before the storm so we're seeing just as many avalanches in those low and mid-elevation slopes which could catch people off guard that includes like hikers people snowshoeing anybody in those low elevation summer trails.”

The wind before this most recent storm overloaded many slopes – including Empire Canyon. The new snow is sitting on top of what’s called the PWL – or persistent weak layer. The recent avalanche activity on the northern end of the compass at the mid and lower elevation bands, Champion says, is a huge red flag.

“In areas where the wind has loaded the slope, the slab could be anywhere from one to four feet deep and hard rock out of the wind zone and made in low elevation bands. We've been seeing a lot of recent avalanche activity. This is a huge heads up that those zones are equally as dangerous as the upper elevation bands. So, with all the new snow, a sensitive slab could fail on top of the weak facet and snow one to three feet deep so there's great skiing to be had at the low angle slopes and today I would personally stay away from any steep northwest, to north to east facing slopes at all elevations.”

Back in 2004, a 34-year-old man visiting from Texas was snowshoeing Daly Canyon with a friend when an avalanche buried him in about six feet of snow. He was not wearing an avalanche beacon. Daly Ave. residents – about a mile downhill – responded and recovered his body.

The avalanche danger for the Park City mountains is considerable on all elevations with aspects facing northwest through east. The avalanche forecast warns that north-facing slopes that are harboring old weak faceted snow surfaces are not to be messed with.

Another avalanche, injuring one person, in a popular summer and winter hiking area along the Wasatch Front happened on Thursday. The avalanche was reported in an area near White Way which is at the foot of Neffs Canyon at the base of Mt. Olympus.

Daily avalanche forecasts are online at https://utahavalanchecenter.org

You can also hear the forecasts on KPCW every weekday morning at 8:08.