Sidecountry vs. backcountry. In both areas accidents can happen. Skiing and snowboarding, even at a ski resort, is never without risk. Understanding avalanche safety, having the proper gear, and knowing how to use it matter. If recent avalanches have taught us anything it’s that not all areas are safe. There are no universal truths to avalanches. Even areas that traditionally are safe can quickly become deadly in the right conditions.
On many winter days explosions can be heard echoing across many ski areas. These are the sounds of avalanche mitigation.
There are a few ways the ski patrol can mitigate avalanche risks. While the explosive business is the most dramatic two other methods are used as well. Ski cutting and compaction.
“We don't do any mitigation outside of the resort and so it's 100% on the on the user, on themselves; we do worry about it from a rescue perspective but we do not do anything to mitigate that hazard," Andy Van Houten, snow safety director of Park City Mountain, said.
Last week an avalanche was reported in the Dutch Draw area of Park City, Utah between the lifts Peak Five and Ninety-Nine 90. According to Van Houten the avalanche occurred in the back country. "We worked with the Department of Public Safety helicopter," he said. "We're able to establish that nobody was involved. We had all of our witnesses accounted for, all is good.”
Avalanche fences are being installed in Park City, Utah despite a petition to halt the construction. However, the petition appears to be to irrelevant now, since the construction of the avalanche barriers are underway.
Iron Mountain Associates plans to install 214 avalanche fences. The avalanche fences are three to four meters tall and under construction in The Colony neighborhood. The avalanche barriers aim to prevent an avalanche from hitting the driveway of two specific homes.
An out-pour of community outrage has ensued since the county approved the project in 2020. Despite the community opposition, the construction of the fences is now underway.
While avalanche fences are effective, professionals feel there are better options. Alternatives exist which do not cause as much harm to wildlife and do not create extreme visual degradation.
The Park City Mountain Canyons Ski Patrol closed off its access to the backcountry adjacent to the resort. The unusual step was taken after a couple of recent deadly slides amid high avalanche danger. Prior to a couple of recent fatal avalanches there had been numerous others in past years as well.
A 31-year-old man died after being buried in an avalanche while skiing in the adjacent backcountry. He accessed it via special gates at Park City Mountain. More recently, a U of U helicopter responded to rescue two skiers. One was buried in an avalanche and died. They also accessed the backcountry via Park City Mountain.
The second avalanche death in two years in Dutch Draw, and at least the fourth in total, has spurred an Avalanche Risk Discussion.
The victim and his girlfriend exited the backcountry access gate atop the Ninety-Nine 90 Express. Then they hiked up the ridge before dropping in to snowboard down a run called Conehead. The victim went first, and when he was about halfway down his girlfriend followed. Then an avalanche occurred. The woman was not caught in the slide.
Some people have argued more should be done to warn skiers who may be unaware of the dangers posed by backcountry terrain. They could put resort personnel near the gate to inform people of the risk. Or require checking out with ski patrol and carrying an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. A check-out procedure is used at some other resorts.
Kevin Jack Steuterman, 31, died Friday, while snowboarding in the Dutch Draw area. Which is just off the 9990 chairlift in the Canyons area of Park City Ski Resort.
Steuterman was with his girlfriend around 10 a.m. when the avalanche occurred. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, Steuterman was buried under 2 feet of snow in a slide that was 150 feet wide and 400 feet long.
Steuterman was on a snowboard and his girlfriend was on skis. Neither was carrying avalanche rescue gear.
The high pressure over Utah is finally breaking down and snow showers are expected this weekend. While that’s good news for the ski resorts, the conditions in the backcountry will become dangerous – even deadly conditions could exist.