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Even though it's early in the season, avalanches are reported on the Park City ridgeline

An avalanche was reported in McKonkey's Bowl on Wednesday.
Leslie Thatcher
An avalanche was reported in McKonkey's Bowl on Wednesday.

With Park City Mountain Resort not scheduled to open until next week, and Deer Valley until next month, snow riders are headed into the back country to enjoy the new snow. But with one local avalanche already reported, those who can’t wait for the lifts to turn, need to know what they’re doing.

Big Dummy, as he’s calling himself, was skiing McConkey’s Bowl on Wednesday when he set off an avalanche that briefly caught him before he was able to ski out. He filed an observation report with the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center saying he “felt like an idiot,” so was sharing the story in case it helps even one person avoid his mistakes.

Some of those lessons he learned included not checking the avalanche forecast, not bringing his airbag even though he knew there was a lot of new snow, not calling his buddies to join him because he figured they would also be out and while he saw clear signs of wind loading and knew the risk, he was cavalier about his ability to handle it.

Utah Avalanche Center Forecaster Drew Hardesty says the center is up and running due to increasing snowfall and avalanche risk.

“Mother Nature sort of drives the bus” Hardesty said. “And we felt like if avalanche conditions were such that people get into trouble, that's our job. And so, we ramped up rather quickly, and we've been issuing daily avalanche forecasts since last weekend with even a high avalanche danger forecast for much of the Wasatch, from Ogden to the central Wasatch and then down to Provo, as well. We did hear about one catch and carry a skier triggered a new wind slab. That was I think about 12 to 18 inches deep. 50 feet wide as the new wind slab caught and carried. He was alone except for his dog, but everything worked out OK.”

Hardesty says between 40 and 50 inches of snow is on the ground along the Park City ridgeline. It’s heavy and dense snow, which can set up a good foundation. As long as temperatures stay cold, he says the dreaded consistent weak layer will have a more difficult time forming...

“That's sort of been the pattern the last five to 10 years and when we get that early season snow and then go back to high and dry that that snow sits on the ground starts to recrystallize and weaken and just doesn't have any strength or body to it,” Hardesty explained. But I'm optimistic.”

The forecast center is welcoming one new forecaster this season, Dave Kelly. Hardesty says the depth of knowledge the forecasters have is astounding.

I always say we have the greatest backcountry avalanche community on Earth to match the greatest snow on Earth,” Hardesty said. “And there's so many people honestly that are savvy and educated and giving us a heads up through our observations platform and what they're seeing in the backcountry as well. It's really great. There's a lot of pros and really a lot of savvy people out there. So, we have a lot of good information to work with.”

The UAC offers lots of classes to learn more about riding in the backcountry. The first lesson he says is to have all of the gear and training in case things go sideways.

“Certainly, all that we call personal protective equipment PPE, that avalanche rescue gear, the avalanche beacon, the shovel, the probe, avalanche airbag, and a good partner. Those things are really critical.”

You can find out more about avalanche awareness classes online at utahavalanchecenter.org and click on the education and events page.

Hardesty also says as ski areas prepare for the upcoming season, the slopes are closed to uphill travel and riders should look for something else.