Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Snow up high, rain down low

Weekend storm brings powder atop Bald Mountain


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Snow falls on Bald Mountain Saturday afternoon. Photo by Willy Cook

Weekend storms brought more than 3 feet of heavy, wet snow to Bald Mountain this weekend, delighting skiers but raising concerns regarding snow stability both on the mountain and in the backcountry.

Residents of the valley floor saw only rain for most of the weekend, with spells of snow in the northern Wood River Valley.

Sun Valley Co. spokesman Jack Sibbach said Monday that the conditions on the mountain are especially good considering how early in the season it is—long before the first official day of winter.

“The skiing on top is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s winter, it’s winter on top and it’s great.”

But with snow came high winds Sunday, and Sibbach said a few of the lifts needed to be shut down during the morning for safety concerns.

Sun Valley Ski Patrol Snow Safety Director Rich Bingham said an avalanche occurred Sunday around 3 p.m. in Lookout Bowl. Bingham said the slide was triggered naturally when south winds piled snow on the ridge, creating a cornice that collapsed and took a lot of snow with it. The area was closed at the time.

“It finally hit a sweet spot and overloaded the weak layer,” he said.

The slide ran to the bottom of the bowl and was between 200 and 300 yards wide, Bingham said, and may have damaged the bottom terminal of the Seattle Ridge chairlift. The slide also damaged a few snowmaking guns.

Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center Director Simon Trautman said Tuesday that avalanche danger is high in the backcountry as well. Trautman said the area around Galena Summit picked up between 3 and 4 feet of snow over the weekend. 

Trautman said that when combined with high winds, that much snow can cause wind slabs like the one that collapsed on Baldy, posing a danger to skiers.

“We have had several rather large slides,” he said. “The threat of natural avalanches is lessening, but the potential for human triggers is still there.”

Trautman said any ridge that gets wind is suspect, and many slopes—though not all—have weak layers of snow that may not be able to support the new load and may collapse under the weight of a skier, triggering a slide.

“You might ride on one slope and be fine, and the next one could have that layer,” he said. “People need to act accordingly and take it slow.”

Bingham said ski patrollers are testing the stability of the snowpack on Bald Mountain by using explosives in Easter and Mayday bowls. He said the explosives send shock waves through the snow, which can trigger an avalanche without putting patrollers in danger.

“It’s one of our best tools,” he said. “We are exposed [to avalanche danger], but not as much as we would be if we shocked the snow structure [ourselves].”

Sibbach said that the resort is looking to open more terrain soon, but no timeline’s been set yet.

“As we deem terrain safe and skiable, we will open more terrain,” he said. “It’s safety first.”

Kate Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

 




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