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Snowboarder dies after triggering avalanche in Utah

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Posted at 11:55 AM, Dec 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-16 11:55:53-05

SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah – A 45-year-old Salt Lake City man died Sunday after triggering an avalanche while snowboarding that trapped him under feet of snow in Utah’s backcountry.

It’s the last thing officers wanted to hear following days of winter storms and inches of fresh powder in Utah’s backcountry.

“There was one set of tracks in and no tracks out,” said Lt. Andrew Wright with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.

They received the call around 11 a.m. Sunday morning. A snowboarder in the backcountry, just outside of Canyons Village at Park City, was trapped in an avalanche.

The 45-year-old had left the Canyons Village resort to snowboard in one of the highest elevation backcountry areas, Dutch Draw.

The Avalanche Center said he was part of the way down, in the Conehead area, when he triggered and was caught, carried and killed in a large avalanche.

“The estimated size of this avalanche is about 180 feet wide and there was about a 600-foot vertical drop, so pretty significant slide,” Wright said.

Based on SCSO timelines, they believe the man had been buried between 25 and 45 minutes when two passersby found him.

“Two individuals came across the avalanche debris field and saw a snowboard sticking out of the snow,” Wright said. “These individuals dug him out and immediately started doing CPR.”

The man was taken off the mountain and despite the individuals’ best efforts, the snowboarder had passed away from injuries he sustained during the avalanche.

Utah Avalanche Center said this same area has seen two fatalities in the past, one in 2012 and one in 2005.

In fact, just two days prior to this accident another slide occurred in the same area.

“If you’re hearing about avalanches on the same kinds of slopes you want to ride on, that is nature’s biggest freebie, it’s the biggest red flag,” said Craig Gordon, an avalanche forecaster with Utah Avalanche Center.

The UAC warned that the risk of avalanches is already high this season, especially on the north-facing slopes like the one the snowboarder was on Sunday.

“The avalanche danger, on a scale of one to five, is anywhere between a level three and four,” Gordon said.

They said the problem comes from heavy snowfall on top of a weak base on north-facing slopes.

“Any avalanche you trigger that breaks to the ground is certainly going to be deep, it’s going to be scary," Gordon said. "And like we saw today, it unfortunately could have a terrible, terrible outcome at the end of the day."

It’s a concern that won’t go away overnight.

“These weak basal layers near the ground, every time we load those up, they’re going to react, it’s going to take a while for them to heal,” Gordon said. “We’ve just got to exercise a little bit of patience.”

Gordon said there are plenty of places in the backcountry that are still “safe” to recreate in. He suggests sticking to slopes that are on the south side of the compass, low-angle slopes, or sticking to areas within Utah’s ski resorts.

While those who frequent the backcountry should always carry a beacon, shovel, probe and come equipped with the latest forecast, Gordon believes avoidance is key.

“If we’ve got to use this gear, it means the accident has already happened. We’ve got to avoid the accident,” Gordon said.

UAC staff and Park City and Canyons resort avalanche professionals will investigate the scene Monday morning.

According to UAC, this is Utah’s fifth avalanche fatality in 2019 and the first of this winter season.

You can find the latest avalanche forecast on the UAC website.

This story was originally published by Elle Thomas at KSTU.