Four skiers were killed in a backcountry avalanche in February, and local experts suspect the weak snowpack is to blame for this season’s especially dangerous conditions.
The skiers lost in the deadly slide were well-prepared, but lack of snow at the beginning of the season created a weak bottom layer, which is threatening to even those with a high level of experience in the backcountry. The unpredictable snow also caused the closure of Little Cottonwood Canyon and Alta Ski Resort in a three-day interlodge — a procedure requiring those within proximity to remain indoors when the slide danger is highest.
Utah garnered the slogan “The Greatest Snow on Earth” after it was placed on the state license plate in 1985, and the number of people flocking to the mountains each year is a testament to that. According to Ski Utah, the mountainous resorts saw the best turnout ever in the 2018-19 season, clocking a total of 5,125,441 visits.
“I don’t ski, but we do snowshoe in the winter,” said Holly Herrera, a general education major at Salt Lake Community College.
Herrera sticks to maintained trails and believes avalanche incidents can be avoided if those venturing into the mountains heed experts’ warnings.
“People ignore the warnings because they are so familiar with the land and it gives them a false sense of security,” Herrera said.
At Alta Ski Area in Salt Lake’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, avalanches are mitigated by manually triggering slides, and depending on the risk, the resort town will implement interlodge procedures. With slide paths clear, avalanche crews can perform precautionary measures.
“Little Cottonwood Canyon is very unique,” said Andria Huskinson, the communication manager for the Alta resort. “There are about 27 avalanche slide paths, and for us to close the canyon in interlodge is a pretty normal thing.”
While the interlodge isn’t unusual to the canyon, Huskinson said the three-day event that occurred last month was uncommon.
Utah’s mountains are prone to avalanches, though some years are more tragic than others. As logged by the Utah Avalanche Center, 11 people lost their lives to an avalanche in the past five years, with six deaths in 2021 alone — an unusually high number for a single winter season.
“When storms come in, they pile on top of each other. Usually, the layers will bond, but at the very base of our snowpack [the snow] is sugary,” Huskinson said of the conditions making this season particularly dangerous. “The denser snow then piles on top of the sugary stuff, causing it to give way.”
With continuous avalanche mitigation, visiting one of Utah’s 15 ski resorts is the safer option, but the backcountry continues to lure several skiers and snowboarders each year.
According to Andrew Nassetta with the Utah Avalanche Center, the appeal of fresh powder often pulls adventurers away from the maintained resorts.
“You hike a little further, you go a little longer, you put some effort on your legs, and you’re getting fresh tracks,” Nassetta said.
While choosing to ski at a resort may seem pricey, Nassetta argues that taking on the backcountry costs even more. Equipment like the necessary avalanche rescue devices and avalanche classes can cost upwards of $4,000-$5,000.
“You need to know before you go,” Nassetta said, emphasizing the importance of being prepared before heading into the backcountry. “You need to get the gear, you need to get the training, and you need to check the avalanche forecast.”
Current avalanche conditions can be found on the Utah Avalanche Center website.