Amid a flurry of snowstorms, Utah is observing its first Avalanche Awareness Week with activities locally and statewide.
Why should Utahns be aware of avalanche risk? Utah Avalanche Center’s Logan Zone Forecaster Toby Weed explains.
“It’s kind of like if you’re living in a state with a lot of surf, like, say, Hawaii,” Weed said. “As you grow up in Hawaii, you learn about the dangers of the ocean and the dangers of the surf. And it’s kind of the same thing if you live in the mountains like this. We have to learn about the hazards of avalanches.”
It’s rare to go a winter season in Utah without avalanche fatalities, so Weed said it’s something snowmobile riders, skiers, snowboarders and others in the backcountry should take seriously.
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature declared Avalanche Awareness Week as the first full week in December. That declaration came in the aftermath of an avalanche killing a snowmobiler in the La Sal Mountains, according to UAC forecaster Drew Hardesty.
Paige Pagnucco, avalanche education and outreach specialist at the UAC Logan office, said Avalanche Awareness Week’s designation means a lot to those working to educate the public on the dangers of avalanches.
“For the governor’s office and the state to recognize that across the board, statewide, people need to understand the importance of avalanche awareness, is huge for us,” Pagnucco said. “It validates everything that we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”
The UAC and other groups are hosting a number of events in Cache Valley to help promote avalanche safety.
A free “Know Before You Go” seminar will be from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday evening at the USU Logan Campus Outdoor Programs building, 805 E. 700 North. For more information about the Know Before You Go program, visit kbyg.org.
On Wednesday, UAC’s Logan branch will host its 16th annual Pray for Snow fundraiser from 6-10 p.m. at the Cache Venue. The band The Swinging Lights will perform and food from pizzeria Lucky Slice will be served. Guests will have a chance to bid on items inluding skis in a silent auction. Tickets are $35 at the door.
Specifically for snomobilers, there will be an Avalanche Skills Tune-Up from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Northstar Ultimate Outdoors, 777 N. State St., Preston.
For some hands-on practice, there will be a free beacon clinic at the Beaver Mountain base area from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. No sign up is necessary, and you may bring your own beacon or use one provided.
For more information about activities in Cache Valley or elsewhere in Utah, visit the UAC website at utahavalanchecenter.org/blog/47768.
Pagnucco said over the 30 years the UAC has been operating, they’ve steadily worked to increase their offerings, making training available to a wider variety of user groups and experience levels. And there’s an increasing need for those educational efforts, as well, because more people are getting into the backcountry thanks to refinements in gear like snowmobiles, skis, snowshoes and splitboards, Pagnucco said.
Currently, there’s considerable avalanche danger for north-facing slopes at high altitude, Weed said. Those slopes still have snow from storms in October. During the high-pressure system that lasted most of November, that snowpack weakened into sugary, loose snow. Now that storms are dumping new layers on top of those weak layers, they pose avalanche risk.
Those conditions will change throughout the season, however, and it’s important for people planning on going into the mountains outside of groomed resorts to check the current avalanche advisory, Pagnucco said.
“That’s the most important thing is to just understand what you’re dealing with,” Pagnucco said. “Even if you’re just going for a cross-country ski.”
Strange weather events can put even relatively benign terrain at risk, Pagnucco said. Last year a couple of avalanches came pretty close to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which people don’t usually think of as avalanche terrain.
The current avalanche advisory can be viewed at utahavalanchecenter.org.