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What the science of snowpack and avalanche mitigation means for skiing

Snowbird Twin Peak Ridge with Wyssen Avalanche Tower.
Christian Calhoun
Snowbird Twin Peak Ridge with Wyssen Avalanche Tower.

With the end of the ski season approaching, most resorts have already closed or are anticipating their last day. But the amount of snow doesn’t always correlate to how long resorts stay open.

While many of us eagerly await big winter snowstorms, how do they impact our ability to get to the places we like to recreate?

“Little Cottonwood Canyon has one entryway and one exit. It has the highest avalanche hazard index rating of any road in North America. And it gets a lot of people coming up and down every day," said Sarah Sherman, communications manager at Snowbird.

She said road safety is just one of the operational and communication challenges to ensure avalanche mitigation is complete. 

“Every single chairlift at Snowbird is impacted by avalanche terrain … from our tram to our most popular chairs and terrain, all of that has to go through avalanche mitigation before we could get a skier on to it," Sherman said.

Craig Gordon has been in the snow and avalanche business since the mid 1980s and for the last 25 years has worked as a backcountry forecaster with the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center. 

“So the role of an avalanche forecaster actually starts the day before we issue our avalanche forecasts," Gordon said. "We’re out in the field … and we're gathering information. So much like geologists would look at layers in rock, avalanche forecasters are looking at layers in snow …. So we’re looking at that and we’re crunching numbers from our ski resort and guide partners from throughout the state.”

He said the Utah Avalanche Center is the one stop shop for all things avalanche.

Snowbird Superior Ridge in clouds
Chris Calhoun
Snowbird Superior Ridge in clouds

“We're a statewide organization and we issue daily avalanche and mountain weather forecasts for all snow users, skiers, boarders, hunters, hikers, snowmobilers, you can pull up a forecast for the zone that you plan to travel in," Gordon said.

Gordon said the snow science is the most technical part of what avalanche forecasters do. Avalanche danger is all about what he calls “strong snow on top of weak snow." This is when a layer of dense, heavy, wet snow falls on top of weak, sugary, or lower density snow. 

Gordon standing on skis next to a snow pile showing layers, investigating recent avalanche activity.
Craig Gordon
Utah Avalanche Center
Gordon investigating recent avalanche activity.

“The snowpack is most susceptible, most dangerous, early in the season just as it’s starting to grow and develop. It doesn't take much to irritate it and it takes very little to trigger avalanches," Gordon said. "Now as it starts to mature, the snow tends to be very deep and homogenous. And then we're just dealing with the new surface snow layers as that starts to heat up under the influence of strong sun.”

With the end of the season approaching, most resorts have already closed or are anticipating their last day. But Sherman said the amount of snow doesn’t really correlate to how long resorts stay open — because so much depends on spring temperatures and how many nights stay below freezing. 

“We have just over 550 inches of snow on the mountain, and that's what we consider average," Sherman said. "We're looking at a lot of folks getting ready to close down and we're looking at being open through at least Memorial Day, conditions permitting.”

There is so much work that goes into the behind the scenes of the snow science and avalanche forecasting that keeps snow sports accessible and safe. 

“The most important thing is that this is going to help everybody communicate more efficiently, travel safely," Gordon said. "And again, at the end of the day, the most important thing is that we're not only getting to enjoy this amazing snow but we get home safely to our families.”

Emily Calhoun is a biology PhD student studying mosquito population genetics in Utah. She has a radio show called Panmixia where she shares her love of music. She is so excited to practice her science communication skills here at UPR.