The Foothilling Frenzy of January, 2013
Unlucky (year) # 13 may have begun with slim pickins’ for Utah backcountry skiers, but there was a sliver lining for adaptable Wasatch front-country skiers. Mired in a weather slump featuring cold, but moisture-starved, storms and persistent inversion, in the wake of the horrendous January of 2012, local tourheads were getting depressed. Then suddenly Mother Nature presented us with a unique opportunity to ski, literally, in the backyard. I was meant to lecture on avalanches at Westminster College on Friday, Jan. 11, but the school was shut down for the day due to a paralyzing 18” of fresh snow in the city! We could have just had a field session on campus, searching for beacons in the lacrosse stadium!
The Utah Avalanche Center report for that day outlined the unexpected snowfall pattern. “It’s a tricky situation today because most of the new snow fell at lower elevations rather than upper… Avoid terrain traps such as gullies and be cautious even walking in the foothills.” Resourceful students, and many others, took advantage of the fresh pow, combined with the unplanned the day off, to go backcountry skiing. Smart ones thought “outside the canyons,” and flocked in droves to the nearby foothills to ski the “Front Country” instead of the standard backcountry favorites.
By the end of the following (sunny) week, there were ski tracks on every grassy slope in sight, from the Capital to Little Cottonwood Canyon. The game was to avoid Gambel Oak and rocks, and find steep, smooth, grassy slopes with short approaches from roads, to shred. Quick-reacting parties immediately laced turns down the obvious bald hills, like Ensign Peak. Others toured up Carrigan Canyon above Skyline Drive, and stacked tracks near Highland High School’s “H” Rock. Grandeur Peak’s West Face saw action, as did the recently burned area on the lower northeast flanks of Mt. Olympus.
Further south, I saw tracks around the mouth of BCC, both south-facing above the Gun Club, and north-facing above the Prospector Neighborhood. It was a rare chance to ski the line visible from the living room window. But the ideal time window really only lasted through the weekend. By the time I took some folks living under the Dolphin Chute to ski their kitchen-window stash, pesky winds had already damaged the snow.
I did react quick enough to get out Saturday afternoon to join the foothill feeding frenzy. But not until after bringing my group to the Silver Fork Meadows to slice up a disappointing 6 inches of wind-pressed snow. We went back to their house high above Federal Heights in Northeast Salt Lake City, donned skins and toured right out the back door.
In spite of the afternoon sun, the windless fluff was blower! As dry as any Alta powder, and piled up 2-3 feet deep! Ski tracks, touring parties and shouts of glee informed us that this was the place. Even the family dog joined us in the frolicking. We were practically getting face shots. Although we didn’t get far afield, it was a blast to ski back to the family home-cum ski lodge. Just like being at a mountain ski hut. Apres-ski at home had never been better, or come sooner after taking off the boots.
Why this odd distribution of snow? “It’s just one of those storms that drives weather forecasters crazy,” UAC stated. “Only 6 inches of snow fell overnight in the upper Cottonwood Canyons while 1 to as much as 2 feet…fell on the benches, especially from about Farmington to northern Salt Lake City. About a foot fell in the…lower Cottonwood Canyons. Powder Mountain ended up with a foot overnight but everywhere else in the range is closer to six inches. The moisture layer is shallow and the front stalled out between Ogden and Salt Lake City.”
As UAC lead forecaster Bruce Tremper later explained to me, “Basically, it was too cold to snow [up higher].” Copious snowfall is usually not associated with the bitter cold temps the Wasatch had been experiencing. Wind (or lack thereof) also played a role. As the UAC pointed out, “The wind blew from the south fairly hard before the front arrived late yesterday afternoon and the winds have been light from the west since then. Temperatures have plunged to just below zero…. the wind died down after the front arrived…”
This calm allowed the storm clouds to pile up against the first hills they hit, and winds were too light to push them up and create a normal orographic effect. In addition, cold temperatures do enhance lake effect, and its probable that with the westerly flow, some of the snow deposited on the benches from Ogden to Salt Lake was water picked up by the storm clouds as they rolled across the Great Salt Lake.
Antelope Island is not exactly the foothills, but it’s an exotic and elusive place to carve turns. In Feb. of 2005 I rallied out there after a series of low-altitude storms, and skinned up to the high point, Frary Peak. The west aspect was very rocky and bereft of snow, but the east had about a meter (compared to 2-3 meters in the Wasatch at that time.) I managed to ski a 50-turn shot on a northeast-facing bowl, and continue the glisse to the roadside.
Some intrepid adventurers sampled the eastern aspect of Antelope Island during the January ‘13 cycle, but that was not a great success. Not only was the snow less deep, where it was blown in, they also triggered an avalanche. Timing and location is everything in the mountains. This is especially true of ski touring. As my friend Eric says, “Carpe ski-em!”
While there were no significant avalanche incidents reported in the foothills, the unusual storm cycle did create some surprises for ski tourers in MIll Creek. Snowfall amounts were very high in this canyon, and the underlying snowpack was shallow and therefore weak. One catch-and-release event was in Depth Hoar Bowl, in lower Alexander Basin. A couple days later there was a close call further west in West Porter Fork.
As reported by the avalanche center, “A large avalanche in Porter Fork was triggered by a two person party ascending the slope. They were both caught and…one was at least partially or fully buried, recovered by her partner and extricated by Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. This is as close to a tragedy as they come.” The only funny aspect to the story was that the victim’s boot was ripped off by the slide. Can you imagine being deep in Porter Fork on a cold day and having to ski out with only one boot? Like many tourers, she probably had her boots loosely buckled on the skin up. Just one more reason to never get caught in an avalanche with skins on.
In lower Big Cottonwood, there was far more snow than further up. The low trees in Broads Fork, for example, were a great playground with 14 inches of new. A friend spent Saturday there lapping up an evergreen glade well below Bonkers that doesn’t get skied much. When I passed by it in the middle of the next week, it had maybe 60 sets of tracks. I’d never seen so many there. The friend told me he’d had a half-dozen buddies with him, and they’d skied lots of short laps.
Its important, if you want to ski odd places, to keep close tabs on the snow depth pattern, especially when it bucks the norm. One more reason to dig plenty of pits! 2012-13 was a below average year for snow-water equivalent in the Wasatch Mountains, but due to the cold temperatures, the inches of (dry) snow, that didn’t melt, added up to decent coverage, even at lower altitude. This was especially true of points further west in the range.
I didn’t fully grasp the ‘West is Best’ reality until a couple friends clued me in. They reported to me they’d skied from Broads Fork into Deaf Smith Canyon via a southwest-facing chute I’d often looked down from the top of Bonkers, but never skied. Then they exited back into BCC via the seldom-skied Power Plant chutes. A rare and awesome touring route.
This was after one of them had skied Stairs Gulch with a lucky pair of strong Swedish clients a couple days prior. He’d chosen to guide that bold line because he’d been observant. Upon his return to Utah (from Antarctica) in late January, he’d noticed the snowpack was displaced much further west than usual. The foundation laid down in early January, combined with cold temps to preserve the low-altitude snow, set the stage for a good winter of skiing in the Lone and Twin Peaks Wilderness and other westerly parts of the Wasatch. This just goes to show, its not what the weather gives you that counts, its what YOU make of it! Keep it safe, and smart in 2014, and let it snow!