Avalanches: When to Stay Off the Slopes

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(Photo Courtesy of Daniel Eike)
(Photo Courtesy of Daniel Eike)
(Photo Courtesy of Daniel Eike)

It was calm, and then suddenly it wasn’t.

What was solid ground two minutes before was now rushing around him like a river. Waves of snow carried him 150 yards in a matter of seconds, and he was helpless.

Daniel Eike was caught in an avalanche, and all he could think was, “Oh, shit.” It was not the way he intended to go down the untracked slope in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

It was a Thursday — “a typical day” — back in December 2013. He’d already spent more than three hours skiing when he caught sight of some untouched terrain — he couldn’t resist. So he, along with his friend Jon, trekked over, making sure to remain inbounds.

The weather hadn’t been cooperative that day. It had been storming, but the mercury never dipped below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The visibility was low, but the snow was letting up. It was heavy and wet, but the resort wasn’t shut down. Eike thought it was safe, but he was wrong.

The avalanche hit at about 8,600 feet. There was a cracking sound as two different shelves broke off and carried him with it. Luckily, Eike managed to stay upright, the snow never going above mid-thigh. His heart was racing — his brain told him, “Alright, I need to get out of this.” And so he did.

Eike rose vertically with his skis to the top of the snow as it pulled him horizontally down the slope. He pushed to the left to avoid some trees and ended up forcing his way out into a clearing. The avalanche continued for another 50 feet, but he was once again on solid ground. He stopped, patted his black and blue jacket, finding no bruises, no cuts. He yelled up at Jon, who was out-of-sight when the accident happened. He was alright; he was better than alright — he was alive.

“The slide took me with it. All I could really do was go with it,” he says. “I’m just glad I didn’t get buried.”

Each year an average of four people die by avalanche in Utah. Eike is lucky to not be a part of that statistic. Drew Hardesty, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center for the past 15 years, says while he did some things right, Eike also did some things wrong.

On the positive side, Eike traveled with a capable partner. He also told others where he’d be that day. Hardesty recommends both of those things.

“Ensure that you’re going out with confident partners,” he says. “Once you’re caught in an avalanche, you’ve already made the mistake, and you have to rely solely on them.”

Hardesty also says it’s important for anyone going into the canyons to check the morning forecast beforehand. The Utah Avalanche Center posts the snow conditions on their website, utahavalanchecenter.org, before 7:30 a.m. every day.

There are five different classifications for avalanche danger — low, moderate, considerable, high, and extreme. Even though it’s in the middle of the scale, Hardesty says “considerable” danger still means to stay off the slopes, especially in the backcountry.

“People can then choose to roll the dice or they can go to where it’s low,” he says.

The snow itself also holds what Hardesty calls “obvious clues,” which include signs of previous avalanche activity or sounds of cracking snow. Bad weather is also a telltale warning. If it has recently been stormy and windy, with snowfall rates of one to three inches per hour, it’s a good indication of potential avalanche danger (even inbounds, though it’s less common).

Hardesty also suggests that people carry avalanche beacons, which send out signals if someone is trapped under the snow, and take free classes on avalanche safety. Eike wasn’t carrying a beacon that day, but he does now.

“Ever since then, on days like that, I’ll wear my avalanche beacon inbounds,” he says. “I’ll wear it even if I’m skiing at a resort.”

Eike, a junior in international studies and health promotion and education at the U, is also avalanche-one certified now. And, although he was shaken up after the incident, he still skis every day. To him, avalanches are inherent in the sport, and he’s fairly calm about it.

“It’s part of the danger,” he says. “They’re going to happen.”

c.tanner@chronicle.utah.edu

@CourtneyLTanner

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