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Social Distancing Outdoors? Beware Of Avalanches

Plastic Mind
Snow-covered Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City.

As efforts to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic limit public gatherings and lead to closures, many Utahns have headed to the mountains for a break. But, as spring arrives and temperatures increase, so does avalanche danger.  

"We've seen three fatalities so far in the state...way too many people," said Toby Weed, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center.

It's the spring avalanche season. Weather’s warming, and mountain snow is less and less stable. Additionally, new snow might not bond to old snow as well, and in windy conditions, especially at high elevations and in canyons, loose, wet, upper layers can come loose and cascade. Toby said these kinds of avalanches hurt more people than any other natural type.

Then there are man-made avalanches. These hurt people the most, usually the ones who caused them.

For general avalanche safety and prevention advice, Toby recommended three things: looking up the avalanche forecast for where you're going beforehand, making sure everyone in your group carries a satellite beacon and a shovel, and crossing slopes one by one while others watch from safe distances.

As for which Utah mountains are safer than others, Toby said there's no single range or ranges that stand out consistently.

"It's all dependent on the mountains and elevation. The mountains in northern Utah are mostly above about 9 or 10 thousand feet in elevation. And that's true with the ones in southern Utah too, and so anywhere we have that kind of elevation we certainly have avalanche issues," Toby said. "Mount Timpanogos itself has hundreds of avalanches on it a year. They happen on slopes that are steeper than about 30 degrees."

For example, according to current forecasts on the Utah Avalanche Center site, while Northern Utah's general risk is low, Moab's is marked 'considerable.'