Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Utah Avalanche Center Director Speaks on Backcountry Use During the COVID-19 Crisis

Due to the current COVID-19 crisis, all North American ski resorts are now closed — but people are still skiing the backcountry. Over this last weekend (March 27-29), the Utah Avalanche Center reported 42 human-triggered avalanches within a period of 5 days in the Wasatch mountains. That's A LOT of avalanches in a very short timeframe, several of which resulted in burials.

Is it possible that due to the pandemic, more people are venturing into the backcountry than before? And just how many of these backcountry users are entering into avalanche terrain with the proper gear, knowledge, and education?

We wanted answers to these sorts of questions so we reached out to the director of the Utah Avalanche Center, Mark Staples. The UAC is an organization that makes avalanche forecasts and provides education and awareness for backcountry users in the state of Utah and beyond. On a daily basis, the UAC interacts with local ski resorts, Utah Department of Transportation, ski guide operators, search and rescue, law enforcement, and event organizers to share up-to-date information and training.

A photo of one of the 42 skier-triggered avalanches that occurred in the Wasatch last weekend. Photo by Utah Avalanche Center/Instagram
 With Utah ski areas closed, trailhead parking lots are filling up more than at resorts. Staples also said new snow is likely a contributing factor to the number of people in the backcountry, which is not unusual. Parts of the Wasatch reported 26" storm totals last Friday, March 27."Anecdotally, it sounds like the trailheads are pretty busy, and a lot of people are getting out in the backcountry," Staples said.

Staples then added that local ski shops have been selling larger quantities of backcountry ski gear than before the resort closures. This is both reassuring yet concerning. Having the proper gear is essential when entering into avalanche terrain, however, it is possible that not everyone knows how to use it properly, like when conducting a beacon search for a burial victim.

According to Staples, the ability to share news of an avalanche by the average person is now so readily accessible that it greatly promotes awareness among backcountry ski communities. A lot of skiers/riders film their descents, and unfortunately, do record themselves getting caught in avalanches from time to time. On March 27, 2020, a skier was caught in a large slide on Mount Superior that carried him 2,200 vertical feet down the mountain at a maximum speed of 77 mph. "It's something we talk about a lot in our education, that avalanches can get going really fast, and it turns out he had the data to prove it," Staples said. 

I talked to Jared Inouye, the skier caught in the Mount Superior avalanche on March 27. He was courageous enough to describe in detail the events leading up to the avalanche and his learnings from it.
"As someone who has experienced the consequence of an avalanche, I just hope that that will somehow translate to people so that they make better choices," Inouye said in an interview with SnowBrains.
Inouye was buried in the March 27 avalanche but was able to dig himself out. Thankfully, he was uninjured.

As temperatures rise and fluctuate, rapidly changing springtime conditions are something all of us backcountry users should be vigilant of. Mark Staples said that there is a good chance the Wasatch will see more big storms throughout the remainder of the season and that the snowpack can change very quickly — within even the span of a day. On top of a worldwide health crisis, no one wants to be caught in an avalanche. Staples shared his thoughts on how right now might be the time to "dial it back a little bit," and to ski more conservatively.
"Get out for some exercise, enjoy the mountains, but maybe put off those bigger, more ambitious objectives for another time," Staples said.
Like many of us during these challenging times, the UAC is taking things one day at a time. As of right now, the UAC still expects to continue making avalanche forecasts for the remainder of the season. 

Fortunately, there are still several ways you can learn about safe travel techniques in avalanche terrain such as the Know Before You Go and other online learning resources that can be found on the UAC homepage. Stay healthy and stay safe out there. 

A skier-triggered avalanche on Mount Superior from March 27, 2020. Photo by Jared Inouye. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Poor Social Distancing Measures: Squamish, B.C. Trailhead Packed with Hikers


A Squamish local reveals a packed parking lot to a popular hiking destination during a time when everyone should be social distancing. Photo by Squamish RCMP Twitter

A British Columbia resident captured an unnerving image of an exceptionally packed parking lot near a popular hiking area in the outdoor recreation destination of Squamish, B.C. last Friday. The photo was taken after all of Canada has been asked to practice social distancing measures due to the COVID-19 crisis. It shows that not everyone is listening to nationwide mandates aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

The resident told a local publication, The Squamish Chief, that they counted up to 200 people climbing a metal ladder with bare hands. We know now that the coronavirus can linger for several hours to days on surfaces according to several new studies, like one published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Squamish RCMP tweeted photos of full parking lots, calling the scenes "unsettling."

B.C. has declared a state of emergency over the spread of the virus. Last Friday, March 20, B.C. Parks announced that due to COVID-19, most campgrounds and accommodations will be closed until at least April 30, Pique News Magazine reports. As of Saturday, March 21, 2020 there are 424 cases of COVID-19 in B.C. where 10 have died and six have recovered.
“To most effectively flatten the curve, and break the chain of transmission, we need everyone to take action at the onset stage. That is why we have put public gathering orders and social distancing measures in place now – to protect us in the weeks ahead," Minister of Health Adrian Dix and B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry,  said in a joint statement sent out on Saturday.
The time to stay home as much as possible and to distance yourselves from others when outside is now as the world combats this invisible enemy. Flatten the curve!

Leigh McClurg witnessed dozens of people going up this ladder with bare hands. Photo taken from Leigh McClurg's video.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Mammoth Lakes, CA Asking You NOT To Come Visit Right Now

The community of Mammoth Lakes, California is asking you not come and visit during this time in the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Visit Mammoth

COVID-19. I know it's all you've been hearing these days along with terms like social distancing and self-isolation. I'm not here to sound like a broken record. However, I must reiterate that these things are VERY important in ensuring our survival.

At this time, the community of Mammoth Lakes, California is asking people to refrain from visiting the town and surrounding wilderness to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus. Visit Mammoth wrote on their website:
We're asking anyone who is not a primary resident of Mammoth Lakes or providing essential services to our residents NOT to visit Mammoth Lakes for the time being. The reason is simple: as a small, remote mountain community our healthcare facilities lack the capacity to handle a widespread outbreak of COVID-19. Additionally, services in Mammoth Lakes are currently extremely limited. Mammoth Mountain and restaurants (excluding takeout services), bars and other public spaces are temporarily closed due to county-mandated health ordersPublic gatherings have also been prohibited by the Mono County Public Health Officer.

We know that the CDC, WHO and the state of California government officials are recommending social distancing, and Mammoth Lakes might seem like the perfect place for that, we also fully understand the inclination to seek escape in the outdoors during difficult times, but the reality is that doing so right now risks lives.

This is a hard message for us to send, as we know how many of you cherish Mammoth Lakes and the wilderness that surrounds it, but we ask you to respect our community and this request to stay home for now. If we all work together to do the right thing during this public health crisis, we’ll all be able to enjoy the Mammoth Lakes area in a responsible and respectful way sooner rather than later.
Please do the right thing at this immensely challenging time for us all. It's the one time that you can save humanity by doing nothing and lying front of a TV. Don't mess it up!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

5.7 Magnitude Earthquake Strikes Salt Lake City, UT This Morning


A 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit Salt Lake City, Utah this morning, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. I felt it. Photo by City of Los Angeles

I woke up to my entire house shaking at about 7:10 am. I live in Salt Lake City, Utah. I've never experienced an earthquake before and when I woke up I couldn't tell if I was still dreaming or not.

But then the shaking continued and I realized that this was an earthquake. A big one. Everything in my house was rattling — including the house itself.

It lasted about 20 seconds and I could do nothing but lay in bed in terror. All the electricity shut off. And then, just like that it ceased.

KSL News reports that this was a  5.7 magnitude earthquake — the biggest earthquake that's hit Utah since 1992. The Utah Division of Emergency Management has received reports of the quake from all over the Wasatch Front, from Logan to Riverton.

At the time of this writing I am still feeling aftershocks from my home. 10 aftershocks have been reporting since the initial quake. This is what Salt Lake City Mayor Mendenhall has to say about this morning's earthquake:
Rocky Mountain Power is reporting that 32,000 customers are without electricity as a result and are currently doing all they can to restore power. There are also significant transit delays in Salt Lake right now. Stay safe everyone.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Backcountry Skiing and Ethical Decision-Making Processes — What’s the Difference?

Photo by SnowBrains

When you are backcountry skiing the decisions that you make in avalanche terrain are mostly ethical choices as they often determine whether you or others will live or die that day. This is because avalanche terrain is inherently dangerous and when a decision could cost you or someone else’s life, it falls into the “ethical decision-making" category. Ethical decision-making as someone working in the media is no different than someone skiing in avalanche terrain. As a reporter in the newsroom, you are just like the backcountry skier on a slope above 30° (the slope angle where avalanches can happen [5]). 
            So how can I formulate an ethical-decision making model based on the readings/teachings presented to us in Dr. Vergobbi’s media ethics class and relate it to skiing? Well, I’ll show you. It all involves an ethical scholar named John Stuart Mill, a little ethical thought process called the Golden Rule, decision-making practices in avalanche terrain, and a couple of scholarly articles dealing with this very question: how can we justify our decisions as ethical, without deceiving ourselves? 
            First of all, ethics is all about considering others — Dr. Vergobbi taught me this [4]. And, sometimes, within ethics, a true ethical dilemma will arise. A true ethical dilemma is when two or more moral values are in conflict [4]. This must be understood before we can dive in head-first into my ethical-decision making process. Once you understand what a true ethical dilemma is then you can follow my three-step process of ethical decision-making. It begins by recognizing all the consequences at hand and weighing out what the best decision is — which is much easier said than done.
A man by the name of John Stuart Mill graciously gifted us the ethical theory of utilitarianism, which states that in order to act ethically, you must consider what the greatest good — or best decision — is for the greatest number of people, including yourself [2]. His theory prioritizes the most ethical decision as the one that is the best for the most people affected. To Mill, the most ethical decision is one that has the greatest utility [2]. 
So, picture this: You’re on top of a beautiful ski run in the backcountry. You just spent hours climbing to the top of this beast. You’re beyond excited to ski it. However, this slope you are now on top of is one that is prone to avalanches and the potential for a fatal slide is present. Right before you drop in, you look down at the bottom of the slope and see another group of unknowing skiers sitting at the bottom of it, stopped for lunch. They are right in the path of a potential avalanche if it were to happen. It does not look like the group is going anywhere anytime soon, either. It also just so happens that you don’t have all day to wait for them to finish eating. So, you must decide: do I ski this line — this line that I oh-so-much would like to ski but would potentially expose this group of sitting ducks below to an avalanche that would surely bury them if triggered? OR do I bite the bullet and travel to another part of the mountain to ski a different line where no other skiers besides myself would be put in harm’s way? Even if it means a lot of added time and effort for myself? 
Well, if you were John Stuart Mill (but on ice) and favored utilitarianism  — the first prong of my ethical decision-making process — you would realize that the greatest good for the greatest number of people would be for you travel to another slope and let these guys enjoy their poorly-located picnic. You'd ski down elsewhere despite the reality that you could still maybe get away with skiing your originally intended line and having everyone walk away just fine by not triggering an avalanche. Because at the end of the day, this is still not worth it, and the headache they've just caused you in selecting a new descent route doesn't outweigh jeopardizing the group's wellbeing, as utilitarianism suggests. Mill would be proud of you. 
This brings me to the second prong of my ethical decision-making process dealing with the Golden Rule aka the Rule of Reciprocity. Most everyone knows this rule as it goes by many names, is practiced by virtually all major religions, and is taught to us from an early age. It states, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” basically saying that you shouldn’t do anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with someone else doing to you [1]. 
So, jump back to the previous scenario with you clicked into your ski bindings at the top of the mountain ready to shred the GNAR before spotting a group of silly skiers situated right in the line of fire of a potential avalanche. Now, place yourself in the group's ski boots. Sure, they may have not made the smartest decision of where to plop down in the snow for lunch, right beneath an avalanche path. But maybe they just don’t know any better. And if you were one of these skiers, and you didn’t know any better, how would you feel if someone showed complete disregard for your life by skiing a line that could trigger an avalanche which could kill you? I mean, sure, that person above has all the reason to be frustrated with you. But if you were the one in danger, wouldn’t you want that skier above to show some mercy and ski somewhere else, thus possibly saving your life and the lives of your unprepared ski partners? Sure, you would! 
Therefore, putting yourself back in the boots of the person at the top of the slide path with the Golden Rule in mind, you probably wouldn’t ski that line. You probably wouldn't ski it after going over all the potential consequences with a utilitarian frame of mind and thinking about how you would feel if you were one of the people below. At least, you shouldn’t, if you were still trying to be ethical here. 
This brings me to the third and final portion of this three-part, ethical-decision making process of mine — debriefing and reflecting upon the decisions you made and asking yourself if any self-deception was exercised in part of your decision-making process. Part of a truly good backcountry skier’s day consists of debriefing or going over all the decisions which they made that day from the moment they left the parking lot to the moment they returned [5]. Backcountry skiers do this to evaluate how their decision-making was on a given day. It allows them to realize where they could have improved their decisions and what can be learned from them. It's a part of the ethical process of skiing in the backcountry and should always be the last thing a skier does before they go home from the mountain [5]. 
Ethical decision-making is no different. After making a decision in a true ethical dilemma, you must always think back and reflect upon the decision made and ask similar questions like the skier. Did I really make the best decision possible? Are there or could there be consequences from my decision? Is there any way I could have made a better decision? Is there something from this decision I’ve learned that I can apply when making future ones? These are all questions you must ask yourself in the final part of this process. 
If you are fairly satisfied with your decision, then it is extremely important to be honest with yourself and consider if you are deceiving yourself in any way whatsoever. Self-deception is an easy thing to fall into as I’ve learned from "Dursley Duplicity: Morality & Psychology of Self-Deception," which said that it is often a habitual method of avoiding painful truths [3]. If you rationalize and say that you probably made the right decision or that it was fine because the consequences were low this time — like skiing the avalanche-prone slope with the people below and not triggering anything — then you may be deceiving yourself. This would ultimately cause you to fail in implementing this ethical decision-making process I have just explained and would most likely impede on your ability to effectively carry out the first two parts of it as well. 

Works Cited 
1.)   Ethical Issues and Opportunities in Journalism,” page 15 – The Josephson Institute 
2.)   Ethical Issues and Opportunities in Journalism,” page 16 – The Josephson Institute

4.)    Dr.Vergobbi 

5.)   Tremper, Bruce. Avalanche Essentials: A Step-by-Step System for Safety and Survival. Mountaineers Books, 2013.

What Revelstoke, BC's Most Deadly Disaster Can Teach Us 110 Years Later

In 1910 Revelstoke, BC was the location of Canada's worst-ever avalanche incident. Photo: Wikipedia

On March 4, 1910, Canada had its worst avalanche disaster in history. The 1910 Rogers Pass Avalanche killed 62 men clearing a railroad line near the summit of Rogers Pass through the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia near the town of Revelstoke. This is the accident summary, provided by Wikipedia:
On the evening of March 4 work crews were dispatched to clear a big slide which had fallen from Cheops Mountain, and buried the tracks just south of Shed 17. The crew consisted of a locomotive-driven rotary snowplow and 63 men. Time was critical as westbound CPR Train Number 97 was just entering the Rocky Mountains, bound for Vancouver. Half an hour before midnight as the track was nearly clear, an unexpected avalanche from Avalanche Mountain swept down the opposite side of the track to the first fall.
Over 1,300 feet of track were buried. The 91-ton locomotive and plow were hurled 50 feet to land upside-down. The wooden cars behind the locomotive were crushed and all but one of the workmen were instantly buried in the deep snow. The only survivor was Billy Lachance, the locomotive fireman who had been knocked over by the wind accompanying the fall but otherwise remained unscathed.
When news of the disaster reached nearby Revelstoke a relief train consisting of 200 railmen, physicians and nurses were sent to the scene. 
They found no casualties to treat; it became a mission to clear the tracks and recover the bodies beneath 30 feet of snow. Many of the dead were found standing upright, frozen in position, reminiscent of Pompeii. 62 workers were killed. Among the dead were 32 Japanese workers.
When news of the disaster reached Revelstoke the next morning on March 5, 1910, people stopped what they were doing, banded together with shovels and blankets, and mobilized to the disaster site to save whoever they could, The Revelstoke Mountaineer reports. There was only one survivor.

Since 1910 it is as if Canada — or, at least, Revelstoke — has learned a lesson from this catastrophe as mass avalanche fatalities have become rare. This does not speak for the rest of the world, however.
So, what can we learn from this horrific incident? Well, we know now the mountains are relentlessly unforgiving and can take the lives of large groups of people at once — people with colleagues, friends, and families. The mountains don't care. But since 1910 we now acknowledge this in even the most basic avalanche safety training which strongly discourages large groups from navigating avalanche terrain all at once.

We also know that nowadays, the snowpack is changing more rapidly than ever before. As a result, this raises our levels of uncertainty when both navigating avalanche terrain and producing avalanche forecasts.

This begs the question: how are we preparing? Are we ready for new and more frequent avalanche paths? A higher volume of mudslides? Higher precipitation, and uncommon weather events that are now becoming more common?

Mother nature is not a force that can be defeated. It's not a force that we should even put ourselves up against. Nature is something we must side with, respect, and learn from. And if we don't? Well, you already saw what can happen.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Historic Avalanche Cycle Wreaks Havoc on Little Cottonwood Canyon

UDOT crews working tirelessly to clear the road to Alta after the historic avalanche cycle that left inhabitants trapped in Little Cottonwood Canyon for 52 consecutive hours. Photo by Rocko Menzyk

From Feb. 6 – 7, 48 avalanches were recorded in Little Cottonwood Canyon, 21 of which hit the highway, keeping inhabitants of the town of Alta trapped indoors on an “interlodge notice” for 52 straight hours. It was the longest time Alta had been interlodged in its history. The Tanner’s Gulch slide path released a size D4 avalanche that was triggered naturally and had traveled all the way down to highway 210, burying a section of the road. This is only the seventh time in recorded history that Tanner’s has slid all the way to the highway. 

“When you see trees and snow on the road from Tanner’s, an avalanche path that from the ridgeline to the road is over a mile and a half and over 4,000 feet above us, even a small amount of trees and debris on the road is a big avalanche,” said Utah Department of Transportation avalanche forecaster Mark Sauer. 

The avalanche cycle which occurred from Thursday, Feb. 6 to Friday, Feb. 7 has now been labeled by meteorologists as a “historic weather event,” and to understand how it happened, one must look at the events leading up to this over the course of the entire winter.

Utah Avalanche Center forecaster and education specialist, Trent Meisenheimer, said that this all goes back to mid-October of 2019 when the Wasatch received its first snowstorm of the winter season that deposited cold, low-density snow. The next snow would not fall until Nov. 21 and would be much warmer than the previous October storm. Because of this, a weak layer of faceted snow formed in the snowpack, which is angular snow with poor bonding created from large temperature gradients in the snowpack.

“Faceted snow is the jihadist of our snowpack. It’s bad and we don’t want it,” Meisenheimer said.

By Dec. 15, faceted snow was still a major concern in the Wasatch’s snowpack. It had created a persistent weak layer on north-facing slopes, which would remain an avalanche problem on the UAC’s daily issued avalanche forecast until Jan. 19, 2020 only to be reinstated on south-facing slopes the following day, Jan. 20. Then, on Feb. 3, an “atmospheric river,” hit the Wasatch, that, in conjunction with strong, sustained winds from the northwest, would be the catalyst for this historic avalanche cycle.

Michael Wessler, a meteorologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, described an atmospheric river as “a firehouse of moisture,” where a little pathway of moisture is transported north out of the tropics towards the west coast of North America by very strong winds. 

“Atmospheric rivers are not unique events,” Wessler said, and not all locations see the same weather impacts as others when dealing with one. What makes atmospheric rivers special for a place like the Wasatch are the mountains themselves.

“The key piece here in the Wasatch is that we have terrain. That terrain acts to basically take this atmospheric river and wring it out like a sponge,” Wessler said. 

When the atmospheric river first entered the Wasatch, it deposited cold, low-density snow in the mountains, with large snow totals being found on valleys and benches. Then, temperatures rose and winds picked up, sustaining an average wind speed of about 50 mph for 36-48 hours, according to Wessler. This is the timeframe when higher density, heavier snow was being deposited on top of the lighter, lower density snow thus creating an extremely unstable weak layer. This is what meteorologists refer to as an “upside-down storm,” drastically increasing the likelihood for avalanches. It was at this point on Feb. 6 that avalanche forecaster Trent Meisenheimer decided to call his boss and director of the UAC, Mark Staples, and tell him to issue an “avalanche warning,” for Little Cottonwood Canyon. 

“Winds above me are just nuking sideways, it’s snowing super hard, and I say ‘Hey Mark, I think it’s time to pull the warning,” Meisenheimer said. 

The avalanche warning along with the interlodge notice for the town of Alta would remain in effect until 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8. This was the first time that Alta residents were allowed to step outside in 52 hours. The following week was greeted with sunshine and temperatures in the low to mid-twenties (°F) providing excellent skiing conditions. But the snowpack is already beginning to change again. Cold and clear conditions the week of Feb. 9-16 have furthered the development of faceted snow, and with a new storm system moving into the Wasatch on Sunday, Feb. 16, there is potential for another weak layer forming and raising the avalanche hazard.