SALT LAKE CITY-- A 41-year-old skier buried up to his neck Sunday in an avalanche underscored the danger of the adventure sought by hundreds every weekend in the Wasatch mountains east of Salt Lake City.
So far this winter, avalanches have trapped 25 people and killed two young brothers snowmobiling near Heber City, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
Snowpack conditions change every year, and last year was a particularly deadly year for avalanches, mainly because of sparse and weak layers of snow. Eight skiers or snowmobilers were killed by slides - double the average for Utah - and 124 people were trapped. Experts say a thin, sugary snowpack can make for more deadly slides than deeper, consolidated snow.
Snow accumulation has been more stable this winter, with Alta ski area in Little Cottonwood Canyon recording 275 inches so far.
Every year seems to bring more backcountry skiers drawn by the thrill of adventure, advances in equipment that make skiing easier, and advertising by gear makers that glorifies the sport, said Brett Kobernik, a forecaster for the U.S. Forest Service's Utah Avalanche Center.
On a typical weekend, it can be difficult to find a parking space along roads or at turnouts in Big or Little Cottonwood Canyons, which hold some of the best alpine bowls in the Rocky Mountains.
That was the scene at 1:30 p.m. Sunday for four skiers at nearly 10,000 feet in a wide-open bowl called Broad's Fork in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The slide released on its own from steep, rocky slopes higher up and moved an entire snow field at once with "very large, icy blocks" in the mix, Utah Avalanche Center director Bruce Tremper said in a report posted online.
"This party appeared to just have some bad luck," Tremper wrote. "They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The avalanche was so unusual that forecasters planned to return Monday to investigate further. Experts are tentatively calling it a "glide" avalanche that cut loose without warning, during a day of moderate risk.
"We're treating this as an anomaly, scratching our heads," Kobernik said.
The 41-year-old skier buried to his neck was taken to a hospital with a possibly broken leg. His companions were able to dig him out, but it took until 9:30 p.m. Sunday for a medical helicopter to make a safe landing for a rescue.