As avalanche professionals we‘ve learned to the recognize the patterns and moments that lead up to significant events. We remember how the snow was years ago when we saw certain avalanche problems as well as how this season has stacked up against others. Checking back to see these patterns can easily be done by scrolling through the “Avalanches” tab on utahavalanchecenter.org. Thin snowpacks have been around a few times within the past 10 years. The years that stand out the most for being so sadly thin are; 2009/2010, 2014/2015, and 2017/2018. We also saw avalanche fatalities in each of these seasons. Not only does our poor snowpack add to the fatalities due to unstable snow, it also plays into our collective inability to control our emotions in the backcountry. The heuristic trap that comes to mind is scarcity.
This storm and the 2020/2021 season take me back to my rookie year as a ski patroller. I was able to learn a ton from my short time working at Snowbasin, but the most influential moment for me was January 23-24, 2010. I was able to see the true destructive force of avalanches which brought me a deeper understanding of the power and reach of persistent weak layer avalanches. With that realization, the world starts to feel as if it could crumble around you. This was an extreme danger day and folks were excited to get out and enjoy the new snow after a scarce December and January (sound familiar?). We had excellent results with explosives on January 23rd. The large D3 avalanches that were released in terrain surrounding Snowbasin earlier were a preview of the onslaught of avalanches to come on the 24th.
January 24th: I was on John Paul Route 5 with Will King, a fast-moving, experienced snow safety professional. It was always a treat to be on-route with him as he mentored me not only in snow safety but in life as well. We had okay results, but nothing like we had seen on the 23rd. As we came to the end of our route, he asked about shot placement from the previous day. I informed him that we had peppered the area with shots on the 23rd. In Will King fashion, he skied off ahead. As I came around the corner there was Will hanging on to a tree with debris all around looking at me with that fatherly look of disappointment saying “REALLY?” He had been caught and carried, and fortunately, able to self-arrest on a tree. The No Name gates were opened shortly after this and riders started to exit the boundary. Before long, a call was made to dispatch that a large avalanche had been triggered in the path now known as “Hemmingway”. Other riders were on scene and had started CPR. Snowbasin ski patrollers made their way to the accident and, unfortunately, performed a body recovery of the deceased.
As I have reflected back on this day, understanding the raw power of an avalanche and the physical and mental trauma associated are my main takeaways. My focus was all on rescue until this day. No rescue or avalanche dog was going to change the outcome of this accident. This, unfortunately, is also the case statistically for many other accidents. The only way to change this terrible ending is preventing the accident in the first place. It showed me that education and outreach are vital. Changing people’s mindset in the backcountry is the only way to create significant change in our backcountry community.
The 2009/2010 season saw two more fatalities. The point I am trying to drive home is that these unseasonably dry years in which we are lacking snow cause not only faceting due to the cold, shallow snowpack, but also creates a scarcity. We all love being in the mountains and sliding on snow. It is important to understand the pure power associated with avalanches. "The sunshine makes people feel good, but the snowpack doesn't necessarily share our opinion," Tremper. Most avalanches in the Ogden mountains are not survivable due to our high consequence terrain, at least 75% of the avalanche fatalities are from trauma. These avalanches affect PEOPLE in our community, they are not just statistics. Heed the warning of the forecasters and travel in low-angle terrain. With that being said, shred on!