UTAH (ABC4) – After COVID-19 forced ski resorts to close early in March 2020, many outdoor enthusiasts weren’t ready to call it quits. While some resigned themselves to lockdown and hoped for sunnier days ahead, many opted to turn to the backcountry to take advantage of ski season despite the closures.
While this solution resulted in a record-breaking amount of people enjoying terrain outside of resort boundaries, it also resulted in overcrowding, inexperienced backcountry users without proper training, and a marked increase in deadly avalanches.
“We had a really deadly winter last year, just across the entire West,” says Nikki Champion, avalanche forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center. “Montana, Colorado, and Utah all had a pretty high number of fatalities.”
Champion says that the main reason for these tragedies was poor snowpack.
The basic anatomy of an avalanche is a combination of a weak layer of snow, a stronger layer over top, and a slope steeper than 30 degrees, she says. At a resort, snow conditions are monitored and managed by patrollers who check the terrain, identify deeply buried layers of weak snow, and use explosives to trigger avalanches before they can happen. But outside of the resort, there’s much more terrain to manage and the conditions can be much more unpredictable.
“Even though there are in-bounds avalanches that occur at ski resorts, they’re controlled, and that danger is mostly mitigated,” says Brad Rutledge, founding board member and secretary of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, a local nonprofit devoted to research and advocacy related to backcountry recreation. “When people go out into the backcountry, a lot of those safety measures that the ski resort implements in terms of staff and avalanche control work are no longer occurring, and so there’s higher danger.”
Avalanche conditions can be caused by several things. Firstly, a light blanket of snow followed by a heavy bout of precipitation in the same storm can lead to the aforementioned weak snow layer topped with a strong one. Champion says that early season snow, followed by cold, clear nights can also cause grains of snow to weaken, creating a dangerous snowpack. Snow scientists call this type of snow “faceted.”
“Basically it’s when you take snow and you try to make a snowball and no matter what you do, it won’t combine,” Champion says. “That’s kind of what was blanketing our entire mountain range last year.”
Even with the increased avalanche risk, though, it doesn’t seem like new backcountry users have plans to give it up. And with the resorts getting more and more crowded, traffic in the backcountry will likely follow suit.
But this could mean danger. According to Champion, this year’s snowpack forecast is quite similar to last year’s.
“We had early season snow and we’ve had not much precipitation since,” she says. “We’re having those cold, clear nights and that drives that weakening process.”
So with a less than stellar snowpack on the horizon for the 2021-22 ski season, what can be done to avoid tragedies of the sort that occurred last year?
There are many ways to mitigate risk, starting, of course, with avalanche forecasting. Champion and her colleagues at the Utah Avalanche Center go out every day to assess risk and compile a report for backcountry users.
“When we go into the backcountry, we’re looking for that weak snow, strong snow, and that kind of upside-down snowpack,” she says. “We do that by digging holes. We put our shovel blade into the snow and actually look at those layers and then we do tests on them to see how stable they are.”
Avalanche forecasters also look at areas where there’s been a high percentage of new snowfall or recent avalanche activity. High winds can also create avalanche conditions.
But there’s only so much that avalanche forecasters can do on their own. The responsibility also lies with each and every backcountry user.
“Be aware that there’s higher risks out there and you have to be personally responsible for your own safety and the safety of the people you’re with,” says Rutledge.
Preparing to head out-of-bounds requires both gear and knowledge. According to both Rutledge and Champion, backcountry users need to be equipped with a shovel, beacon, and a probe, at the bare minimum.
“A beacon is a device that both transmits and receives a signal. You wear it the whole time you’re traveling in the backcountry,” says Champion. “It’s on at the car, off at the bar. It’s on the whole time.”
The beacon allows a skier who has been buried under the snow to be found by telling the searcher how deep they are buried. A probe tells you exactly where the person is. And once their location has been identified, the shovel is essential for rescue.
But it’s not enough just to have the equipment, it’s important to know how to use it well.
“Once you get the gear, that’s a great first step, but if you don’t know how to use it, it’s useless,” Champion says.
The Utah Avalanche Center provides a variety of backcountry training options ranging from lectures that teach the basics, to companion rescue courses that teach beacon skills, to full backcountry 101 courses that combine lectures and fieldwork.
And even after purchasing and learning to use equipment, it’s important to check the forecast every time before hitting the backcountry. The Utah Avalanche Center puts out a detailed avalanche forecast every day, which includes a danger rates, suggests for types and areas of travel that are safe, and the size and likelihood of an avalanche.
“We’re first and foremost concerned with safety,” says Rutledge. “There’s greater risk when you’re out in the backcountry.”