Current snow conditions may create hazards heading into spring

Record snow, ‘rapid change’ in conditions and warming temps can create potentially hazardous situations for recreationists in the Tetons.
A snowy forest in Idaho on a bluebird day. Skiers often seek out areas burned by wildfires across the mountain west, which open up new terrain. (FS Sawtooth Avalanche Center)

Some areas of the Tetons saw over three feet of new snowfall in the first three days of the month — the most new snowfall this winter.

“We went from having kind of a poor winter, to a complete 180,” said Alex Drinkard, a forecaster with the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center. “We’ve been getting a pretty significant amount of snow, and we’re actually a lot closer to the average snowfall.”

He said that although the snowfall is good for the region’s average snowpack — relieving some concerns about drought conditions — the snowfall sets up potentially unstable conditions for backcountry recreationists heading into spring.

“Because, as we say, snow doesn’t like any sort of rapid change,” Drinkard said.

Current snow conditions are pretty stable, rated moderate on the avalanche center’s forecast, having settled since the record snowfall. But Drinkard said the slow start to the year created weak layers, which led to an above average year for avalanches.

“I wouldn’t call it a historic year by any means,” Drinkard said. “But it has been atypically dangerous.”

He said as temperatures begin to rise, instability increases as well. Top layers melt, revealing the weaker layers below, and new snowfall has a harder time bonding due to a hard crust from prior snow melting and freezing.

Additionally, windy Wyoming weather creates slabs of snow that are more reactive than typical snow. 

“We get a lot of unstable snow when we’re getting those high winds associated with these storms,” Drinkard said, “which is what we’ve been seeing in the last month pretty regularly.”

Drinkard said the best way to stay safe while exploring the backcountry is to check the forecast and any observations before leaving, test the snow yourself once you arrive, and to ski with proper gear and a partner. 

Future snow conditions depend on what the rest of the season looks like — if the region sees any more big storms. 

Tree well dangers

Four people have died at U.S. ski resorts nationwide this year, half in the Jackson Hole area. 

That’s according to Paul Baugher who has been tracking snow immersion suffocation deaths at U.S. ski resorts for decades. He’s the director of Northwest Avalanche Institute and said about five deaths in the U.S. happen every year after skiers become buried in snow. The majority of those deaths are due to tree wells at ski resorts.

So it’s an inherent risk in the mountains,” Baugher said,And these are accidents that primarily happen at ski areas.”

Baugher said deaths at resorts are more prevalent than in the backcountry because of the frequency skiers can encounter hazards, due to the ability to ride up a lift and take multiple laps down.

“3% of the total happened out of ski area boundaries,” Baugher said, “The rest of them occur within ski areas. So, I mean, that’s pretty cut and dried.

A Colorado man fell in a tree well at Grand Targhee resort in mid-February and died of asphyxiation. 

And local businessman Teton County resident Kelly George Krause died at Jackson Hole Mountain resort on March 1 after falling into a tree well. The county coroner has not yet ruled the cause of death.

Ways to mitigate the risk include being aware and riding with a friend. But Baugher said — the risk — is inevitable.

So bottom line is partners aren’t enough,” Baugher said. “And I see this all the time. Everybody says, oh yeah, I know ski with a partner. It’s like, no. The phrase that you need to repeat is keep your partner in sight.”

He said his research shows the dangers increase when the mountains gets about two feet of snowfall within 48 hours. And that although many people seek fresh powder — the best way to avoid an accident is to stay out of the trees and stick to the groomers on heavy snow days.

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