Storm Set to Pound Intermountain West

Avalanche fatality in Montana underscores need for caution

Despite several days of consistent snowfall across the West, all anyone could talk about Sunday in Jackson Hole was the immediate forecast: Both Utah and Wyoming are bracing for a huge storm to roll in Monday afternoon. Some areas in Northern Utah are calling for four to six feet of new snow.

While it feels like Christmas has come early, it’s a good time to check our speed, be patient, and make good decisions. The video above from the Utah Avalanche Center expertly demonstrates the danger lurking in our mountains.

Many places in the Intermountain West are seeing a persistent layer of deep instability in the snowpack. New snow adding weight to this bad layer is a recipe for disaster. The avalanche danger at the upper elevations in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains is listed as high, meaning that travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.

Drew Hardesty, forecaster with the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, posted the following statement to his Facebook page yesterday:

“This week’s storm has Avalanche Accident written all over it. Probably more than one. Combine heavy snow and wind, a rotten-to-the-core snowpack, Christmas vacation, and a hungry-for-powder crowd. Along the arc of risk and desire lies the unwritten accident. Have a safe holiday season.”

Unfortunately, Montana had its first avalanche fatality of the season on Saturday (it was the second nationally). From the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, in Bozeman: “A snowmobiler died in an avalanche on Saturday outside of Cooke City. The avalanche occurred on the southeast face of Sheep Mountain between Lulu Pass and Round Lake. The slide was triggered from low on the slope by the victim who was subsequently buried six feet deep. The victim had an airbag but was unable to deploy it. The slide also caught two other party members who were parked in the run-out zone. One was buried up to his chest while the other was completely buried. They both deployed their air bags and escaped without injury.”

Also on Saturday, a skier in Jackson Hole narrowly escaped a poor start to the holidays after triggering a slide in the popular out-of-bounds area known as Four Pines, just beyond the south boundary of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The crown was reported to be three feet deep. No one was injured in the avalanche, but local forecasters are cautioning backcountry users to be on high alert. With a generally shallow snowpack in the Tetons, avalanches carry the heightened danger of dragging potential victims over rocks and trees.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center, in Jackson, posted an advisory Monday morning stating that the snowpack in the Tetons reflects that in Montana where the fatality occurred: “Our snowpack structure is similar and our forecast areas have experienced multiple close calls during the past ten days. The likelihood for human and naturally triggered avalanches to be triggered will increase as the day progresses. Our snowpack continues to gain depth and mass. Todays avalanches will be larger and less likely to end favorably, with respect to interactions with humans. It’s time to dial it back several notches, until this storm cycle ends.”

It’s probably a good week to be a resort skier and hill-bang your favorite chairlift with all your friends. Be safe out there.