Monday, January 14, 2013

An unusual skiing weekend

 As most Salt Lakers now know, we had strange storm happen late last week.  It started to snow hard in the valley on Thursday afternoon and didn’t stop until Friday afternoon, and while not quite a Snowmageddon (a term applied to a big storm that totally fizzled a couple of years ago) it still put nearly two feet of snow in the valley.  Ironically, however, according to the Utah Avalanche Center the cold temps limited “dendrite development” up at the higher elevations so the totals in the cottonwoods were substantially less.  We have the below poster of a “snowflake thermometer” framed in our living room that shows this lack of dendrites (the little fingers, which add more "poof" to snow) on the lower left:

Like everyone, we are lured by the prospect of deep powder and as such we purposely stayed low and headed up our oft-visited West Porter fork.  Despite the fact that we knew it had snowed “more” low, we were still stunned at the depth; the trail breaking was full-on trench warfare through thigh deep snow, and it took us nearly 3 hours to do get as high as we normally do in 1.5.  Given the dramatic change in the snowpack we played it conservative and rode the mellowist lines in a relatively mellow area, which pretty much relegated us to breaking trail back downhill!  But it was pretty fun in the blower-over-the-head kind of way. 

As it turns out, our wariness of the dramatic change in the snowpack was warranted.  The next day a couple pushed on a few hundred feet higher than where we had stopped the day previously and triggered a major avalanche that caught and carried them both and completely buried one.  Here is the report by the UAC.

The “friend of the UAC” who came upon the couple was our venerable friend Peter Donner, he of Riding The Brink fame (from an earlier post).  Peter haunts “Peter Fork” in the winter as much as he rides The Brink in the summer, and while Peter was not mentioned in the local and national press accounts of this accident, I think it’s safe to say that these two folks are super fortunate that he happened upon them.  They were still pretty shaken up when he arrived and hadn’t called for a rescue despite temps near zero, being 2000 feet up, and darkness on the immediate nigh, and his presence rallied them into action (important note:  Brother Paul reminded me that emergency calls for backcountry ski accidents in the Wasatch should go to Alta Central Dispatch -  801.742.2033 – and NOT 911).  Peter broke trail downhill while the victim – who had lost poles, skis, AND a boot , and also had a head injury – rode on the tails of her partner’s skis (awkward at best, even on groomers, much less 2.5 feet of cold, slow snow).  The police heli flew over and Peter thought that perhaps it missed them (but was actually going to Brighton to pick up a couple of key Search and Rescue guys) so he left the couple and skied out quickly in the dark (which is quite common for Peter anyway!) to give the upcoming Search and Rescue team the exact location of the couple, who were then quickly scooped up in the helicopter.  Nicely done Saint Peter!  I think I’m going to find one of these and put it on his truck next time I see it parked at the Peter Fork trailhead:

It sounded like the rescue was done by multiple agencies and executed like clockwork, which is encouraging, and the police lieutenant's quote in the SL Tribune: something along the lines of "when the snowpack changes it's important to be prepared for avalanches" vs the historically-more-common "these lunatics should not be skiing in the backcountry!" is a clear indication that the UAC's message has been getting through to everyone.

The “spatial variability” (a commonly-used Utah Avy Center term) of the snowpack at different elevations and aspects was striking: on Saturday we were skiing a foot of nice powder on big, exposed, south-facing shots, yet we were only a couple miles from the deepness in Porter Fork and only about a quarter mile from some friends who also triggered another avalanche on a north-facing slope.  Sunday morning was the coldest yet, but we stayed in the Sun and in full view of Alta we shredded tons of great untracked lines. 

Part of the reason we may not have had quite as much competition for untracked up high was the lure of the elusive foothill skiing.   Even in our big 2010-11 season many of the storms were pretty warm, which precluded our ability to ski much lower than about 7500 feet and last year we had almost no snow in the valley, so this storm provided the opportunity to ski within minutes of downtown for the first time in years (and given global warming, may become even scarcer yet?).  And people took advantage of the opportunity.  This is from our friend Colin who was up above the Shoreline Trail near the Bobsled:

This morning Ash and I couldn’t resist that opportunity either so we did a 5 minute drive to Carrigan Canyon (I’m ok with divulging the location, since it’s probably not going to be a huge destination!) to catch nice sunrise alpenglow on the Oquirrhs:

and were able to “shred” (very gently) about 1300 feet of nice turns above the awakening city:
It’s ironic that we had been struggling with early season conditions until Christmas, and now that it has finally filled in we purposely go ski an area with two feet of fluff on top of rocks, but the novelty of skiing a nice line we had never done before within view of the yard was quite so.   

With another foot of snow  - which is not even remotely on the horizon, unfortunately - this would actually be pretty decent skiing!  


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  2. Tom. It's great to get the additional details on the "West Peter Fork" incident and many thanks. Saint Peter it is for our good friend Peter Donner. So we have Pete's Trees in Little Cottonwood, Peter Fork.... He is having quite the year for someone who avoids the limelight! For all the sound advice to never travel alone in the wilderness Peter is one of those kind souls who does and he does it so well! See you our there. Mavor