December 25, 2008 in City

Avalanche danger rises in West

Two snowmobilers killed in northern Utah
Associated Press
 

JACKSON, Wyo. – Avalanche centers around the Rockies warned that backcountry conditions were hazardous and likely to become even more dangerous with approaching storms.

As centers in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming issued avalanche warnings Wednesday, an avalanche killed two snowmobilers on Logan Peak in northern Utah. The Utah Avalanche Center warned people not to venture into the backcountry.

Bob Comey, director of the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center in Jackson, said his area already had a weak snowpack. He said additional snowfall up to 2 feet was forecast.

Comey said the center anticipated a major avalanche cycle during the storm and immediately afterward. He said conditions were likely to remain dangerous for some time.

“We are seeing natural avalanche activity,” Comey said. “We have a weak snowpack, and we have a big storm coming in with strong winds. So we expect to see more avalanches. With the accumulated snow from the past several storms, plus the new snow that’s anticipated, we’re expecting to see large avalanches.”

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman reported Wednesday that the avalanche danger in the mountains near Cook City, Mont., was high on all slopes steeper than 35 degrees and on any wind-loaded terrain. The center reported that four people were partially buried Saturday and that conditions Monday were dangerous enough to keep center personnel from entering avalanche terrain in the area.

The Montana center rated the avalanche danger as considerable in many other mountain ranges in the state.

The avalanche danger in Colorado grew after days of heavy snows and strong winds. Avalanches have killed two people over the previous 10 days in Colorado.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the greatest risk was in the mountains west from Frisco to Grand Junction and south from Steamboat Springs to Durango.

Shelly Grail of the U.S. Forest Service said the avalanche danger originated in October, when warm weather followed early snows. That created layers of sugary, unstable snow and hard snow that break apart when they flex. Since 1950, Colorado has led the nation in avalanche-related deaths, with 221.

A wave of winter storms has dumped snow all over Utah, especially in the mountains. Another round expected for Wednesday and today could push the danger level from high to extreme.

The Utah Avalanche Center said steep slopes where snow has drifted in the wind were the most vulnerable. People are being discouraged from going to the backcountry until the conditions improve.

The avalanche center said a backcountry skier escaped two separate avalanches in the Park City mountains on Monday by clinging to trees for safety.

Avalanche center Forecaster Drew Hardesty told the Salt Lake Tribune that the unidentified man was an experienced skier. He was not injured during the incidents.

The skier was along the Park City ridgeline when he triggered a slide 40 feet above him. He grabbed a tree as the snow went by. Hardesty said that as the man was trying to ski out, another slab broke loose 100 feet above him, forcing him to grab another tree for safety.

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