The second avalanche death in two years in the same location, and at least the fourth in total, has spurred an Avalanche Risk Discussion.
On Friday, January 8, Clinton, Utah man was killed in an avalanche on the Park City ridgeline in Dutch Draw. It’s a popular backcountry skiing area that is easily accessible from a chairlift at Park City Mountain. It’s the fourth fatal accident in Dutch Draw in the past 15 years. And the second year in a row in which someone has been killed in an accident on the steep run known as Conehead. The tragic accident has raised concerns in the community about how prevent avalanche accidents among people who are not aware of the dangers.
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.
Rescue personnel responded to the accident when the woman called 911 immediately after the avalanche. But due to risks of additional avalanches they were unable to proceed until after 2:00 p.m. Both riders had some experience in the backcountry, but neither were carrying avalanche rescue equipment at the time of the accident.
A patroller said a self-rescue of the victim in this accident may have been possible with properly equipped and trained partners. They also said this accident was predictable due to recent avalanche activity in the area and the overall state of the snowpack. Which features a considerable avalanche risk on a persistent weak layer of snow.
The Avalanche Risk Discussion
This area is a readily accessible backcountry area. Because of this easy access the area in Dutch Draw and Square Top further north are very popular. And since these areas are visible from chairlifts they are also appealing to people who may not have the experience and equipment required to safely ski and snowboard there.
Park City Mountain, however, is not able to limit access based on a person’s qualifications due to liability concerns. The private property resort borders National Forest. And the forest service encourages, but does not require, access gates. The gate is marked with stern warnings about the dangers inherent to leaving the resort boundary. However, to many people this signage is just one more warning. Others mark inbounds dangers, closed terrain, and other hazards.
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.
While the avalanche risk discussion is ongoing the Park City Mountain Resort has not indicated decisions to date.