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Backcountry conditions are ripe for avalanches

The aftermath of an avalanche on Conehead on Saturday.
Michael Fischer
The aftermath of an avalanche on Conehead on Saturday.

New snow and strong winds are keeping the avalanche danger at ‘considerable’ across the upper elevation slopes. And Saturday’s bluebird day brought out the snow riders with one skier outrunning a harrowing slide that two of his friends had just skied before him on the Park City ridgeline.

As of Sunday morning, 20 avalanches were reported in just the Salt Lake and Unita mountains alone since Friday. The slides were caused by many sources, naturally as well as by skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers.

Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Nikki Champion says the new snow, high winds and deeply buried persistent weak layer of snow are all creating the danger.

The majority of these avalanches failed as soft slabs of either new snow or wind-drifted snow, especially on the aspects that were exposed to a little bit of sun prior to the storm and it had a firm crust so easterly aspects and southeast aspects. There are some really impressive avalanches.”

One of them happened on the Park City ridgeline just outside the Park City Mountain resort boundaries in an area known as Dutch Draw on Conehead on Saturday. After two skiers made it down, the snow collapsed when the third skier came down.

Park City local Michael Fischer and a friend had just climbed up from Peak 5 chairlift and headed to an area called Hollywood

“We saw these guys, and I'm like, ‘ooh, top of Conehead after all the snow.’ I think the avy conditions were considerable. So, I see them starting to drop and the timing just worked, where I got to the top of this peak right when all this was happening. So, I pulled out my camera and I started filming. And I got like, guy number one, guy number two, you know, skier number three, and sure enough, like the third skier triggered it. And honestly, the main reason I pulled out my camera was because I was like that could slide.”

It's a slope he knows is well-known for sliding and the majority of avalanches occur where a slope has slid before. This is one of them.

You can see Fischer’s remarkable video of the skier bailing out of the avalanche’s path online at kpcw.org.

Shortly after that, Fischer saw another group of skiers at the top of the Conehead…

“They were clearly debating going down it and I'm like, ‘man, are these guys gonna trigger another slide?’ It’s been a problem area, and I don't know how people make their decisions. I mean, it is tempting when you look at it, but anybody who's been around knows that that's a dangerous slope.”

Dutch Draw is accessed off the 9990 chairlift on the Canyons Village side of Park City Mountain, but the resort closed that access three years ago after two backcountry skiers died in January 2021. One of those who died, skied this same line.

Today, backcountry skiers are expected to access the backcountry off the Peak 5 chairlift, a longer and steeper hike up the hill, but many just duck the rope off 9990.

According to the Avalanche Center, four snow riders have been killed in Dutch Draw since 2005.

For those headed to the backcountry, know what you’re doing, make sure you have all the necessary equipment and how to use it. Champion says even small slides “can be dangerous in high-consequence terrain.”