Snow brings excitement and danger to the Abajos
by Rhett Sifford
Since the start of December, 36 inches of snow has fallen at the Camp Jackson SNOTEL site located at nearly 9,000 feet in the Abajo Mountains. That’s good news.
There are nine inches of water in that snow – even better news for a county that suffered through an extreme drought this past summer.
Increased snow in the mountains brings excitement to San Juan County residents, but for those who enjoy winter recreation, it also brings danger in the form of avalanches.
Avalanches happen throughout the winter in the Abajos. Two recent significant occurrences are located at North Creek and on the east face above Butler Flat.
Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) Forecaster Eric Trenbeath said, “An average of 25 people die in avalanches in the United States each year. In 99 percent of avalanche accidents, the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggered the slide.”
He pointed out that most avalanches occur on slopes that are between 30 and 45 degrees.
Trenbeath is a regional avalanche forecaster based in Moab. He issues daily updated snow, avalanche, and mountain weather reports for the La Sal and Abajo mountains.
The UAC is a partnership between the US Forest Service and the Utah Avalanche Center Nonprofit that forecasts avalanche danger for all the mountain regions statewide.
Trenbeath explained that the UAC rates avalanche danger on five levels of severity: low, moderate, considerable, high, or extreme. He reported that the avalanche danger in the Abajo Mountains is currently high, which means natural and human-triggered avalanches are likely.
Trenbeath described an avalanche as “a load building up until the layers underneath can’t support it and it breaks loose. Wind produces rapid snow loading, and that’s when natural avalanches tend to happen.”
Trenbeath warned that if a natural avalanche hasn’t occurred, the snow load is “just hanging there in a state of suspension, waiting for the weight of a snowmobile or a skier or somebody to come onto it and add that extra load that causes it to release.”
Trenbeath offered several signs that can help skiers and snowmobilers determine if they are in a high-risk area.
“The first obvious sign,” he explained, “is avalanches. If you can look around and see avalanches that have occurred within the last 12 to 24 hours, that’s a good sign of instability.
“Cracking in the snow surface, collapsing, recent wind drifting, and rapid warming are also signs of instability.
“We want people to know about the rescue gear they should carry,” Trenbeath emphasized. “Everybody should wear an avalanche transceiver or beacon, everybody should carry a collapsible shovel, and everybody should have a probe” to locate someone who might be buried in avalanche debris.
Another piece of gear that is becoming more popular, despite its cost, is an air backpack. It has a ripcord that causes the backpack to balloon up around an individual who’s buried and “float” them to the surface of the snow.
The importance of carrying rescue gear is illustrated in the avalanche death of a skier that occurred last Friday, December 18 in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in Emery County. The skier was not wearing an avalanche beacon.
“Giant avalanches are not the avalanches most people get caught in,” Trenbeath pointed out. “It doesn’t take very much snow to bury you.
“Most people trigger avalanches that might be 50 or 100 feet wide and they might only run for two or three hundred feet. They’re much smaller incidents that bury people.”
“Sometimes people want to go big,” Trenbeath said. “Snowmobilers like to climb high on steep slopes and skiers like to ski them. On days when the danger is higher, you need to back off and find other places to play.”
Trenbeath said his main reason for talking with the Record is to make San Juan County residents aware of his avalanche forecasting service, so they can start using it. He also offers avalanche education courses.
The UAC will be putting on a two-day Backcountry 101 course for skiers and snowboarders on February 8-9 in the La Sal Mountains. Trenbeath added that the UAC also provides snowmobile-specific courses.
The UAC’s webpage, UtahAvalancheCenter.org, includes avalanche forecasts and dozens of informative videos and graphics. You can also find them on their Instagram page at utavy_moab. Connect with Eric Trenbeath by phone at 801-647-8896 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.