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High Avalanche Danger Out West Affects Transportation And Ski Areas


To another story now. It's been a chaotic couple of weeks in the Rocky Mountains where large avalanches have closed highways and ski resorts. A single storm near Salt Lake City triggered a record 48 slides. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the increased avalanche risk comes at a time when more and more people are hitting the slopes in the high country.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, it's probably solid.


KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the craggy Teton mountains of northwest Wyoming, steep and deep Jackson Hole is a magnet for extreme skiers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right. You got it. Oh.


SIEGLER: Their buddies goading them on, Matt Beauregard and Rick Lawler (ph) drop a 15-foot cliff in this glade area called the Tower Three Chutes.

RICK LAWLER: Today's just kind of a mellow day, honestly. We're just ripping around in bounds.

SIEGLER: Skiing in bounds - inside the patrolled boundaries of the ski resort - is generally thought to be safer when it comes to avalanches. That's because all season, skiers have been packing the snow down and stabilizing it. But Matt Beauregard knows that's no guarantee.

MATT BEAUREGARD: We've actually triggered small slides on this exact face.

SIEGLER: They may duck a rope and ski out of bounds into the back country, but even here at the resort, they're wearing avalanche transceivers and safety gear just in case.

BEAUREGARD: Yeah. Education's probably the most important thing. Rick here is wearing an airbag for added protection. So in the case that he is stuck inside an avalanche, he'll be able to pull this cord and hopefully float to the surface.

SIEGLER: In bounds or in the back country, avalanche danger is high across the Mountain West. We had an unusually snowy early season followed by drought, then dry powder storms, then a punch of heavy wet snow. Last weekend in Utah, a two-day storm dumped 6 1/2 feet in Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to the Snowbird and Alta resorts.

NIKKI CHAMPION: And it ended up closing Little Cottonwood for 54 hours, and 48 avalanches were reported, 21 of those hit the road.

SIEGLER: Nikki Champion is a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center. She recorded wind speeds up to 100 miles an hour on ridge tops. Now, that further destabilized the already volatile snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains.

CHAMPION: And then you put a big strong heavy load or a wind load on top of that, it's just kind of upside down. It's like a pyramid when you take out the base or Jenga when you remove one of the pieces.

SIEGLER: There were no fatalities reported in Utah. But last month, skiers were buried and killed in avalanches within patrolled terrain at resorts in California and Idaho. All of this is putting the round-the-clock work of people tasked with keeping these mountains safe under the microscope. Jackson Hole ski patrol director Drew Kneeland is stepping into his bindings.

DREW KNEELAND: You know, you can't see it in the fog now, but there's a big cirque above us here and that's Casper Bowl, and all that terrain is avalanche terrain.

SIEGLER: Every morning at dawn before the tram and the gondolas start spinning, an army of Kneeland's patrol are detonating explosives to intentionally trigger slides now so skiers don't later. And some of these can even be detonated remotely thanks to a new robot-like trolleys that reach even more dangerous remote places.

KNEELAND: Obviously, we worry about avalanches coming down into the heavily congested areas. And so that's one of our biggest concerns is to get that work done early.

SIEGLER: Another big concern is simply that more people are venturing out further into areas they normally wouldn't have thanks to improved equipment.

KNEELAND: I think people assume that we're able - that we have the ability to completely eliminate the risk of avalanches within the ski area, and that's just not the case.

SIEGLER: But avalanche forecasters say along with the increased risk comes a new cachet. It's becoming cool to say you've taken avalanche courses and are as prepared as you can be. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Jackson, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.