With each successive two-foot snowfall, skiers and riders at resorts rejoice. But in the Utah backcountry with no avalanche mitigation, that fresh snow often sits on a sugary, crusty weak layer and can be prone to sliding. Last Chair headed into the Utah backcountry with Utah Avalanche Center pro Drew Hardesty for a conversation in a snow pit, analyzing those weak layers from storms going back to October and talking avalanche safety.
A seasoned avalanche safety veteran, Hardesty was a gracious backcountry guide, offering insights into the weather and how to prepare yourself to be safe.
Our outing was a simple one, heading up from the Guardsman Pass Road trailhead at the upper reaches of Big Cottonwood Canyon, climbing through magical aspen trees up a low angle ridgeline on the western flank of 10420. Finding a clearing amidst the snow-laden evergreens, Hardesty skillfully dug a nearly six-foot deep snow pit.
“It's abundantly clear to people that spend so much time out here that it's not a vocation or avocation. It's really just a way of life. And that just forms your values and is fundamental to your outlook on life. Spending so much time in the mountains, it's inspiring and it's humbling at the same time" - Utah Avalanche Center Forecaster Drew Hardesty
The conversation covered a broad range of avalanche safety topics, with insightful analysis into the layering created by each successive snowfall, and the weak layers of sugary snow between each – potentially a hazard when the snow facets don’t bond and the new snow breaks.
Hardesty is part of a dedicated team of professionals at the Utah Avalanche Center, providing daily insights and forecasts, as well as education, to help keep backcountry skiers and riders safe. Learn more about the history of avalanche forecasting and mitigation in our blog!
Listen in to learn more. Here’s a sample of Last Chair’s episode 8: Conversation in a Snow Pit with Drew Hardesty of the Utah Avalanche Center.
Drew, set the stage for us on the avalanche problem we’re facing.
Early season we had quite a bit of snowfall in October. It continued into early November and it really started to stack up. But then the storm shut down there for a couple of weeks. And as I like to say, the weather does the devil's work. And by that I meant that snow sitting on the ground started to get weak, sugary, less cohesion at the surface. And that has become our weak layer for these subsequent storms.
In your experience, what is one of the biggest red flags here in Utah?
I did a study a few years ago looking at all of our avalanche accidents in the modern era going back to 1941 – almost 130 avalanche fatalities since then. And we have way more higher proportion of fatalities from people accessing the backcountry from the ski areas and the lifts than any other state. Easily 20% of our fatalities have been people going and accessing the backcountry from the ski areas.
What goes into forecasting by Utah Avalanche Center?
Our forecasts are predicated upon the field work of not just our avalanche forecasters, but whole platoons of what we call professional observers. And again, just that great communication that we have with all of our snow safety brothers and sisters and again with Utah Department of Transportation, the guides out there, it's really fundamental to be out in the snow like we are today, to look and see what's going on with the snowpack, what's going on with the weather.
Drew, as you look at this snow pit wall, what are the important points?
As we're looking here, we have about two feet of our slab here. And the slab is nothing more than what we'd call a cohesive plate of snow, something that's cohesive and strong, that's sitting on something weak – sugary snow. It's just very crystalline and weak.
What’s the heritage of snow safety here in Utah?
Utah is the birthplace of avalanche science and avalanche mitigation in North America, upper Little Cottonwood Canyon in the late ‘30s and ‘40s. These grandfathers, Monte Atwater and Ed LaChapelle, really built avalanche science and avalanche forecasting that has set the benchmark for anyone else in North America. So it's an honor to be part of that lineage here.
Do you have a favorite backcountry place in Utah?
It's the Provo Mountains. The Provo mountains are some of the most radical and extreme and beautiful part of our Wasatch – seldom traveled. And it's very dangerous terrain in there. And you have to be right. You have to pay attention. And I'd have to say that the Provo area mountains are my favorite part of the Wasatch Range.
Drew in one word can you sum up what it means to be in this beautiful Utah backcountry?
Boy, I just can't Tom. But It's a good life. It's a good life.
Knowing about the science of snow is important to all of us as skiers and riders. Listen in to the entire Conversation in a Snow Pit to learn more from Drew Hardesty of the Utah Avalanche Center.
Utah Avalanche Center Forecaster Drew Hardesty
A seasoned veteran avalanche forecaster and host of the Utah Avalanche Center podcast, Hardesty was a naval officer during Desert Storm in the ‘90s when he picked up a copy of Rock & Ice magazine. That led him to a career in avalanche safety where four or five days a week he’s skinning up into the Utah backcountry to make observations on the snowpack to help keep us safe. Checkout Hardesty’s collection of videos, podcasts and essays built over an avalanche safety career that has spanned more than two decades. You can find out more about Drew on his website.
Are you new to avalanche safety? A good starting point is the highly-acclaimed Know Before You Go program, produced by the Utah Avalanche Center. As Drew explains in Last Chair, it was developed after the deaths of three Utah skiers nearly 20 years ago as a means of providing basic awareness of avalanche danger. Know Before You Go is the first step in your journey through avalanche education. The program introduces you to avalanche safety with some simple steps you can take to stay safe and have fun in avalanche terrain. Before you go into the mountains in winter:
Get the Gear
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The Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) exists to keep people on top of The Greatest Snow On Earth® by providing avalanche forecasting, education, and awareness throughout the state of Utah. It was originally formed in 1980 in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, with a nonprofit arm established in 1990 to help enhance funding opportunities. Utah backcountry skiers and riders take great pride in having UAC’s support for education and forecasting. Each fall its awareness and educational programs offer insights to newcomers and refresher courses for experienced backcountry veterans. Its mobile app-based forecasting services, updated daily, are vital tools for both backcountry and resort skiers and riders to understand the snowpack.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| And we are up high in the Wasatch today with Last Chair from Ski Utah. Tom Kelly with you. Drew Hardesty from Utah Avalanche Center is my guest. And Drew, thanks for the skin up here. Tell folks where we are.
Drew Hardesty: |00:00:12| Yeah, Tom, really great to be out with you. We're on the west ridge of 10420 and Upper Big Cottonwood Canyon. It's a really prime place to go to walk a safe ridge. You can observe avalanche conditions in situ. We have strong southwest winds. It's a place that's prone to wind loading. We're going to have a good outing today to see what the avalanche conditions look like.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:33| Well, it's just beautiful out here. And I know that a lot of listeners have been out in the backcountry around Park City and up. We're actually at the head of Big Cottonwood Canyon. But, you know, you get off the road, get off the trailhead, and you get back up in the trees. It's just a different world. So we are just from a weather perspective today. Drew, give us a little sense of what's coming down here. Definitely. We have a storm coming in. But what did you see in the forecast today? And give us a sense of the weather up here.
Drew Hardesty: |00:01:02| You know, we're going to see a series of storms coming in on the west and northwest flow. I would say lots of what they call embedded disturbances. No significant blockbuster coming. But in the next 7 to 10 days, but we're going to see continued snowfall, strong winds. Things remaining quite cold. What I would call a good powder preservation weather. And we'll just have it keep stacking up in this banner winter so far.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:30| We're recording this podcast a couple of days before Christmas. This has really been a remarkable year so far. Whether you're in the backcountry or whether you're going in off the lifts. But we've had continual snowfall now since late October, pretty much a paradise out there. But you have to think about being safe.
Drew Hardesty: |00:01:49| Yeah, that's right. You know, early season, you know, we had quite a bit of snowfall in October. It continued into early November, Tom, and it really started to stack up. But then the storm shut down there for a couple of weeks. And as I like to say, I the weather does the devil's work. And by that what I mean is that that snow there sitting on the ground started to get weak sugary cohesion less there at the surface. And that has become our weak layer for these subsequent storms. When it started picking up and started storming again the last couple of weeks, and that's what we've seen as the number of avalanches failing at that layer that formed during that spell of high pressure for about a week to ten days there in November.
Tom Kelly: |00:02:38| We're going to look at some of that later in the podcast. Drew has dug a snow pit up here on a north-northwesterly facing slope, we're going to take a look at that a little bit later on. Drew, a lot of folks know you from your podcast at Utah Avalanche Center. You've been around here and forecasting and helping keep skiers safe in the backcountry for some time now. Give us a little bit of 411 on your background.
Drew Hardesty: |00:03:02| You know, I remember distinctly as an officer in the Navy during Desert Storm. And having been a climber and skier during college and before becoming an officer in the military, I took all those passions to to the Middle East for the first Gulf War. And I remember I think it was two in the morning. And I just come off shift there on this destroyer again in the Middle East. And I was reading Rock and Ice magazine, and I told them I was getting out of the military because I was going to pursue a job as a climbing ranger and as an avalanche forecaster. And some guys said, 'what, you're giving up this job as an officer in the military and you're reading some magazine nobody's ever heard of?' And sure enough, you know, I just the rest is history. Have been an avalanche forecaster since 1999, climbing range in the Tetons. Not long after that. And I've just really enjoyed a life of skiing and climbing the mountains since then.
Tom Kelly: |00:04:10| What are some of the things about that culture of being in the backcountry, being out in this beautiful paradise that we're into today? We've got snow on the evergreens and it's just a gorgeous environment here. What are the things that really triggered that passion for you when you first got into it?
Drew Hardesty: |00:04:26| Tom, it's just really abundantly clear to people that spend so much time out here that it's not a it's not a vocation or avocation. It's. It's really just a way of life. And that just really forms your values and is fundamental to your outlook on life. Spending so much time in the mountains, it's inspiring and it's humbling at the same time. And I'm just very grateful to have the support of my family and and and the Forest Service pays people to go out and take a look at the conditions to to help keep people safe in the backcountry. And I feel very, very glad, very, very fortunate to do that.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:12| Well, we all appreciate the work that you do and everybody at the Utah Avalanche Center team. It is a paradise out here, and I know we all have a passion for it, but we also need to really think about being safe. Give us a few initial thoughts on the importance of snow safety and understanding that. And then from there, we'll talk a little bit more about the specific services offered by Utah Avalanche Center here in Utah.
Drew Hardesty: |00:05:38| Well, I mean, to be sure, you know, we have some of the greatest avalanche professionals on earth to sort of match, as Wallace Stegner would say, to sort of match that society to match the scenery. We have some of the most well-respected avalanche professionals on Earth, and they're employed with all of our world class ski resorts, with the Utah Department of Transportation, with the Powderbirds and Utah Mountain Adventure, all the guides. We have such an amazing avalanche community here. And you know, those of you listening at home that are, you know, buying a pass or buying a lift pass to go up into the mountains, you're effectively in part paying people, the avalanche professionals, to mitigate and knock down that risk. They're getting up at four in the morning to make safer conditions for the public, the riding, the chairs to go skiing. These great ski areas that we have, when you're heading out to the backcountry, you have to do all of that yourself. And first of all, you have to be aware that, you know, in Utah alone, we suffer about, on average, three avalanche fatalities in the backcountry each winter. And you have to realize that it's very dangerous in the mountains. You know, risk is inherent in mountain travel. You have to be aware that it could be really quite dangerous in the backcountry. You have to be aware of what's going on. And so in part, what we try to do is educate people about the snowpack and the avalanche conditions so that people can make the right choices to choose the appropriate terrain for the day.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:17| What are some of the educational resources available from Utah Avalanche Center for somebody that's just getting started, they want to go out and buy some skis, some skins. Maybe they got a Christmas gift. But what's a good place to start to get the basics?
Drew Hardesty: |00:07:32| Tom, It's amazing. I mean, it's come so far in my tenure. I mean, it used to be that you would come up and spend three days at, like the Wasatch Mountain Club lodge in Upper Big Cottonwood Canyon and spend the night up there for a couple of nights and be up there for three days and you get your level one. But I mean, now, Tom, from the comfort of your home with your bunny slippers and pajamas, you can you can just absorb so much information online. We have these great e-learning online avalanche modules. There's so much you can get at know before you go. Org And even people just I recommend, even if you don't have any experience at all, if you're just following our avalanche forecast day in and day out, you're just going to learn so much language. You're going to learn so much about the avalanche conditions, the avalanche problems, the avalanche danger scale. You're really going to be educated even just from the safe and safe confines of your own house, wherever you happen to be.
Tom Kelly: |00:08:30| Let's talk about Know Before You Go. A new program was developed. This is a program that's been around for a while, but refreshed content this year with new videos and new direction. I've seen it. I've actually used it in some of the programs that I oversee. It really is an amazing primer. It's not everything, you know, but it is an amazing primer to give you a sense of what you need to learn.
Drew Hardesty: |00:08:53| I have to tell you to back up a touch, Tom. You know that. Know Before You Go, Program was born out of tragedy. And just before Christmas in December of 2004, I remember it like it was yesterday. You know, three kids up out of Provo were up above Sundance, just up the road from Sundance Ski Resort in a place called Aspen Grove. And we're booting up this really steep couloir called the Northeast Chute of Elk Point. And a huge avalanche came down and killed them. And that, right there, was the catalyst, the impetus. We have to do something. We have to educate our youth. And now that has just gone exponential and worldwide and many languages. And it's just it educates not just our youth, but but. Anyone that's just getting into the backcountry.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:39| When it has such great tools to introduce you to the basics. But let's say you want to go. You've done no Before you go, you've got a little bit of experience out there and you want to get a little bit more hands on education. What's available is kind of a next step to really dig a little deeper and give you hands-on experience on snow to learn more about snow safety.
Drew Hardesty: |00:10:04| You know, patterned after a college course we call it. It's just called Backcountry 101. And it's just really an evening and then a day or two that you're heading out there with qualified instructors. And, you know, she'll take you out there and show you you can recognize what avalanche terrain is, what avalanche terrain is not. Introduce you to classic signs and symptoms of an unstable snowpack that is collapsing and cracking. The avalanches that you may be seeing out there to point out that we that maybe you do have very dangerous avalanche conditions, a little bit of looking at a snow pit, but mostly it's about recognizing avalanche terrain, feeling confident and comfortable that you're going to be able to pull off an avalanche rescue if you need it. And then that's just going to kick your long, lifelong learning in the backcountry from there.
Tom Kelly: |00:10:59| Let's take a little bit of a step back and talk about the gear that you need to have to go into the backcountry. It's easy to look at the skis and the skins and the equipment you need, but for safety purposes, give a little rundown on the equipment that everyone should have when they venture out into the backcountry.
Drew Hardesty: |00:11:14| Without question. You know, you have to have an avalanche transceiver. You have to have a probe, you have to have a shovel. And many people head into the backcountry with an avalanche airbag. So, again, these are all things that you have to have when you're going into the backcountry in case the worst nightmare is realized. So you and I out today, you know, each of us, we are ski partners. Each of us have all that gear. If I happen to be caught in an avalanche, if I happen to be caught in an avalanche and buried underneath, then your transceiver you're going to switch to receive and that you're going to be able to home in and find out where I'm buried in that avalanche debris. So the avalanche transceiver leads to the avalanche probe. It's this lightweight collapsible probe that's about ten feet in length. It looks like something out, like a, you know, a tent pole, essentially like an aluminum tent pole. You're going to pull out your avalanche probe. You're going to spear down through that avalanche debris and you're going to be able to feel me where I am buried in that avalanche debris. You're going to keep that probe in and then you're going to take off your pack. You're going to grab your collapsible lightweight shovel and you're going to dig down to find me and hopefully not have to do any first aid or give me any breath of air. And you're going to be able to try to do that within about 15 minutes of burial. And that's going to give me the greatest amount of time and the greatest percentage of survival. Because, Tom, clearly, if someone is in an avalanche, 911 is something to call. But by and large, that's going to be a body recovery. You are your partner's best hope for survival. You have about 15 minutes to uncover someone in that avalanche debris.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:02| So if you have all of the gear, how do you get the training to learn how to use that gear, how to use that transceiver and how to use that probe?
Drew Hardesty: |00:13:10| You know, for sure, we have all number of these what we call companion rescue clinics that last just about two or three hours, and you're going to meet at a trailhead or a parking lot and you're going to run through it. It's just like the sort of companion rescue boot camp you're going to walk away from for these companion rescue clinics feeling confident you're going to be able to pull off a rescue of your spouse, your friend, any number of your backcountry partners.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:36| For somebody who has been going in the backcountry for a few years, they have their gear. They've done the training at some point. What about refresher training? Is it something that you ought to look at every year?
Drew Hardesty: |00:13:46| You know, it's just not a check the box sort of thing, Tom. I mean, it's not something that you do your first year and you say, okay, I've had my training. You need to go out there and flex your muscles. You've got to go out there and knock the rust off. Every year I go out there and do companion rescue training for myself. Every year I'm following what's new in snow science and what's new and mountain meteorology. So you have to really keep the pencil sharp. You have to really continue your education. It's a lifelong pursuit.
Tom Kelly: |00:14:16| We're with Drew Hardesty from the Utah Avalanche Center. We are high up off of the Guardsman Road at the head of Big Cottonwood Canyon. When we come back from this short break, we're going to talk about the forecast today, what went into our little trek up here in the mountains. And then we're going to dive into the snow pit and look at some of the layers from those storms that we've had over the last. Few months here. We'll be right back on Last Chair.
Tom Kelly: |00:18:17| And welcome back to Last Chair. We're with Drew Hardesty from Utah Avalanche Center. We are high up in the Wasatch, up at the head of Big Cottonwood Canyon. We're going to talk about the forecast. We're going to talk about a snow pit in just a little bit. But I want to come back to you know, we're in this amazing location and we're definitely in the backcountry. There are no ski lifts on the way up here, but a lot of folks are accessing the backcountry through lift-served access, wherever that might happen to be. And it's a whole different ball game now. You want to talk about that a little bit. True. And the impact that that's had on skiing here in Utah, for sure.
Drew Hardesty: |00:19:34| Tom, you know, I did a study a few years ago looking at all of our avalanche accidents in the modern era as well. I would call it going back to 1941. I think we're up to almost 130 avalanche fatalities since then. And we have way more higher proportion of fatalities from people accessing the backcountry from the ski areas and the lifts than any other state. And it's not even close. Easily 20% of our fatalities have been people going and accessing the backcountry from the ski areas. And in my tenure alone since 1999, way over almost 60% of our skiers and snowboarders, of those fatalities have been people accessing the backcountry. So 16 of 27 skiers and riders. In Utah. Are dead because they've been in an avalanche accident accessing the backcountry from a ski area. So it looks really easy to be riding the chair and being in this really excellent and safe terrain because the snow safety professionals at the ski area. But once you head out of bounds, it's a whole different deal. You're just looking at this beautiful blank canvas, but it's completely stepping in from low danger to perhaps sometimes even high danger. And that's why we've had, again, at least 16 fatalities of people going into the backcountry since 1999 2000.
Tom Kelly: |00:21:04| When you look a little bit deeper into the victims of those avalanches, what's kind of the experience level that you find or the equipment level that you find on them?
Drew Hardesty: |00:21:12| Most of them have been people with very little education and training. They see what I would call an attractive nuisance. They're riding the chair. You know, they've been in great powder because the snow safety professionals have made it safe for them and they just look beyond the rope lines and they see again, this beautiful, amazing canvas of the greatest on earth. And they just are lured into thinking that it's just going to be the same. But it's not. And it's been tragedy after tragedy. And so we have really tried to get the word out there that people heading into the backcountry from the ski areas, they need to be equipped with not just all the rescue training, because if you're using that gear, you have already made a mistake. You have to be equipped with a weapon of knowledge to be able to make good decisions before heading into avalanche terrain.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:01| I'm just kind of curious, Drew, with COVID the last few years, a lot more people were flocking to the wilderness in the backcountry, whether that's for hiking, skiing, snowshoeing or whatever it might be. Did we see a big influx of new participants in backcountry skiing over the last few years?
Drew Hardesty: |00:22:17| We have, counterintuitively, you know, just looking at the data with COVID, it was not the beginners getting into trouble. It wasn't the newbies. If it happened, it's you and me. It's people that have been around the block that maybe owing to different stress levels or something with COVID, they've been pushing it. And as Mark Twain said, it's not what you don't know that kill you. It's what you know that ain't so. And so it's a marked difference between those people accessing the backcountry from the ski areas and who we saw getting killed and having accidents during COVID.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:51| Yeah, let's talk about forecasts now. We're up here and we've had ever changing weather, the hour, hour and a half that we've been out here. The weather's been dynamic the whole time we're up at. They had a big Cottonwood Canyon right now coming up here today, Drew, give us a little sense of what the avalanche forecast was telling us.
Drew Hardesty: |00:23:09| Well, the danger is going to be on the rise today, Tom. You know, we have, again, a series of storms coming in here, This one punctuated by strong west northwest winds, and that's easily whipping that new snow into sensitive drifts off the lee of ridge lines. We're seeing some graupel here and this is what we call a pre-frontal environment. I think the front is going to be coming in this afternoon. That's going to be adding more stress to the layers of the snowpack. The danger will certainly be on the rise to considerable. I think the dangers are already high up in the Logan area mountains because they're seeing more of a brunt of precip and winds as we speak.
Tom Kelly: |00:23:44| Utah Avalanche Center has a very detailed forecasting service which provides forecasts for different regions of the state. Give us a little sense of what goes into that forecasting at UAC every day.
Drew Hardesty: |00:23:58| Tom, it's really our forecasts are predicated upon the field work of not just our avalanche forecaster, but our whole platoons of what we call professional observers. And again, just that great communication that we have with all of our snow safety brothers and sisters and again with Utah Department of Transportation, the guides out there, it's really fundamental to be out in the snow like we are today, to look and see what's going on with the snowpack. Look and see what's going on with the weather. To have this idea, this mental picture of what's going on out there. So when we add the new snow, the new snow and went on top of that, we've been out there. We know what's going on. We're talking with our colleagues. We can paint this picture to the consumers of our avalanche forecasts and then you can make good decisions when they're heading out on their own.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:46| So a forecast is only as good as the people who put the time in to reading it. That forecast is delivered in a variety of different ways. But I mean, for me, and I think for a lot of folks, the mobile app is a real asset.
Drew Hardesty: |00:24:58| It does. You know, we just you know, we can try to paint a simple picture for folks that really don't have that much experience. We can say, hey, the danger is high. You know, avoid being in the backcountry altogether. The danger is extreme. But, you know, to these avy savvy folks, the danger is not going to be high everywhere. And so we have right there with our bottom line danger rating. You know, we have a little bit of wording out there how likely it's going to be, but we have what we call a danger rose in that danger. The rose has aspects and elevations out there. And so the danger may be high on, say mid and upper elevation, nor through east facing aspects, but it could be just moderate on south facing just based upon what the structure of the snowpack is. And so when we say it's high again, it's not high everywhere. And so the savvy people can choose terrain that is less dangerous and make good decisions when they're out there. Ultimately, it's all physics. Tom, if you want to avoid worrying about the monkeying with the snow structure altogether, if you're on slopes less steep than about 30 degrees with nothing steeper above, you can go out there and ride the world class powder every single day through.
Tom Kelly: |00:26:12| One of the things that we've been looking for today, and folks can probably hear it in the background. We have a lot of wind up here today. Wind loading is going to be a factor today and for the next few days. Tell us about that.
Drew Hardesty: |00:26:23| Well, you know, as most of your listeners know, the weather is the architect of the snowpack and also the catalyst for most of our avalanche problems. You know, we see a lot of snow, We see a lot of wind and you're going to see a lot of avalanches. I mean, it doesn't take it rocket scientists to do that when you have weak layers in our snowpack, as we do now from that period of high pressure just before Thanksgiving, we're going to be digging down to look for those faceted grains, the weak sugary faceted grains that form then and see how much this new snow and wind is going to start to affect those. And if these avalanches are going to be much more than just superficial, if they're going to step down to these older weak layers, making them much more dangerous. So we're going to take a look here in a minute.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:07| We're going to get into the snow pit in just a minute. But if I'm out in the backcountry today with a buddy, what are the things relative to the wind loading? What should we be looking for?
Drew Hardesty: |00:27:17| You know, the wind drifts are easily recognized because they're generally smooth, pillowy, rounded. Sometimes you're going to see like cracking, like shooting cracks emanating from your feet or skis or snowshoes or whatever. You may hear this audible warmth. You'll never forget it. Sometimes it can sound like a thunderclap. But if you're hearing you're hearing the collapsing, you're seeing these shooting cracks, you're seeing lots of rounded, pillowy snow. It's best to avoid being on steep terrain.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:55| We were coming up today and just looking at a little bit when we started our skin up from the trailhead, it was a little bit windy, but it's gotten progressively more. So we've got a lot of grapple coming down right now. We're in a snow pit right now. And let's take a little bit of a look there. Going to maneuver ourselves to a good spot here. Drew, you've dug a nice pit. Thank you for that. Why don't you give our listeners who aren't going to be able to see this, but with a little imagination, what are we looking for in this snow pit that we've done?
Drew Hardesty: |00:28:25| Eventually after you're done digging your snow pit, Tom, I mean, as Ed LaChapelle, one of the great grandfathers of avalanche sciences science, has said that by the time you're done digging your snow pit, even before you've conducted any pits, you have a good idea of what the structure is. You know, it's really critical that you have this recipe that you're looking for in terms of avalanches. You have to have a slab sitting on top of a weak layer and you have to have a slope steep enough to slide. And then generally a trigger, which would be you gentle reader or gentle listener, you are often the trigger that's going to have that slab collapse, that weak layer, and then run on that steep terrain. So here as we're looking here, we have really about two feet of our slab here. And the slab is nothing more than what we'd call a cohesive plate of snow, something that's cohesive and strong, that's sitting on something weaker that's like weak, very weak, sugary snow here. It's just very crystalline and weak. But honestly, the good news is in the upper reach of the Cottonwoods, that old weak snow, that sugary snow is starting to gain strength in facet and center and getting stronger. And so these avalanches are going to become less sensitive to human triggering. And that's good news. We had high danger recently, and I think that we're going to start to turn the corner pretty soon. And the danger is going to be more pronounced in those thinner, weaker areas like maybe along some parts of the Park City ridgeline, some parts of Mill Creek and then some parts of Provo. That's my forecast.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:11| So you've you've identified this layer and it looks to me like it's about 24 to 26 inches down from the top of the snow right now. I know you've got the experience to just kind of use your hands and look for that crystal and feature you're digging out a little bit there right now. But if you look at these layers, do you have any way of identifying when that snowfall occurred or are we looking back about a month or so or a few weeks?
Drew Hardesty: |00:30:35| Yes. This is the snowfall that we had, Tom, in late October that fell on the ground late October, early November. And then I think just around maybe towards the second week of November, it stopped snowing. And so that's that snow that was here along the top reaches of the snowpack, you know, under the clear cold skies, it started becoming weak and sugaring cohesion was just sort of like right on the top of the snow surface. And many people think, oh, the snow is drying out. But that's not the case. It's sort of becoming faceted and weak and sugary. And so when you get these storms on top of it, it doesn't bode well and it avalanches. And that's your interface. Now, over time, because you have essentially removed what we call a temperature gradient from the snowpack. It's starting to turn the corner. And those squares, as we call them, are starting to round off a little bit and gain strength in the overall snow pack is becoming more stable. Now, if we see two or three feet of snow in this storm, which I don't think we will, the strong winds, it doesn't matter. I mean, you're going to have a big enough hammer to trigger avalanches down to these older, weaker layers. But I'm optimistic. I think we're going to start to see these layers start to heal and gain strength. And all these avalanches will be just within the new snow.
Tom Kelly: |00:32:05| Drew, we've talked about the situations we had this year that created these weak layers. This is not really all that unusual for Utah on the way. We get our early snowfalls delivered and that persistent weak layer that is subsequently created.
Drew Hardesty: |00:32:19| Yeah, that's very classic for us. You know, we get those storms and even late September or October and then it just goes high and dry and we start to see clear cold conditions and that snow changes. I mean, again, clear skies does the devil's work and it changes. It's called snow metamorphism. It changes, it becomes weak, cohesion less. And it just has all the strength of a house of cards. When you put subsequent storms on top of it pretty much every season, we early season, we go through that cycle and we have some close calls and accidents, you know. And then we start to turn the corner by and large, and then things become more stable after the new Year and then the late January and February. And that's a good thing.
Tom Kelly: |00:33:03| You've been kind enough to dig the snow pit, which is a good educational tool. Give us a perspective of how important this is and is this something that you do every time you go out or there's something that serves a particular purpose? How should we look at snow pits if we're heading out in the backcountry?
Drew Hardesty: |00:33:21| You know, generally speaking, when you're looking at the avalanche forecast and you've been following along what's going on in the backcountry, you know that again, that forecast is guidance. It's not gospel. It's something to start with to go out and confirm with your own eyes, with your own feet, with your own shovel when you're heading into the back of a tree. So here we've been talking about this this week layer here. We've been talking about these storms coming in with a lot of wind. And so we're going to be looking for wind slabs today. We've been talking about the winds. We're going to be looking for sensitive wind slabs. We're going to be looking when we're digging snow pits, we're going to be looking for the faceted grains again from early November. In some cases, we're going to be testing those with our snow pits with a variety of different compression tests, extended column tests, propagation sorts. There's all these sort of battery of tests that we can use to gauge whether the snow is gaining strength or are becoming more unstable. And so that's just part and parcel of not just being a professional, but anyone that's heading into the backcountry to have to have some knowledge on how to test some of these layers on their own.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:39| One of the good features of the Utah Avalanche Center website is the reporting service. And you talked about this network of individuals who are out there. And it's just like all of us who are in the backcountry have the ability to send in these reports that can be used by others. Pretty important tool, isn't it?
Drew Hardesty: |00:34:56| It's amazing. I mean, Tom, we just can't be everywhere at once. And we've had an observer program since the late eighties, even the early nineties of just people heading out into the backcountry, just reporting what they're seeing and helping us paint a big picture for others, adults who enjoy our world class powder in the Wasatch Mountains.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:16| So when we're finished here today, Drew, you're going to spend a little time out here. What's in your plan?
Drew Hardesty: |00:35:21| You know, I want to see what's going on with the wind, with the wind drifting up here. Are we seeing sensitive soft slabs of wind, snow along the leverage lines? How much is that overloading? Are faceted layers from early November. These are all the questions I have and I sort of target places when I'm heading to the backcountry. They're going to give me good information for what I'm looking for to satisfy my questions before I head out. So once again, in summary, I have a big picture of what I'm looking for before I head out there. I'm going to target aspects, elevations, part of our Wasatch Range. That's going to give me the answers I'm looking for.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:05| And you're going to have fun too, right?
Drew Hardesty: |00:36:08| Well, that's part and parcel of it as well.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:10| I love it. We're going to close this out with our Fresh Tracks section, just a few final closing sessions as the storm keeps coming in. And we apologize for all that background noise. But I know this is a tough one for any skier. You know, like what's your favorite run, the favorite area you like to be in. Is there some place in the Wasatch that's really special to you?
Drew Hardesty: |00:36:32| It's the Provo Mountains. The Provo mountains are some of the most radical and extreme and beautiful part of our Wasatch seldom traveled. And it's very dangerous terrain in there. And you have to be right. You have to pay attention. And I'd have to say that the Provo area mountains are my favorite part of the Wasatch Range.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:52| That's a good one. And we don't often think of those. They're big mountains, aren't they?
Drew Hardesty: |00:36:55| They are. I mean, you just have to drive up Provo Canyon, go up the North Fork, you go up to Sundance right there, and you're in your own little slice of Europe right there. I think it's one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:08| Cool. I know you spend most of your time in the backcountry. Do you get out to the resorts much and do you have a favorite place you like to sneak off to to take a lift ride once in a while?
Drew Hardesty: |00:37:18| Tom, this is going to sound very political, but I think all of our ski areas are so great, what they're, what their niche is. You know, Deer Valley is not trying to be Brighton and Brighton and is not trying to be Canyons Village and Alta is not trying to be Sundance. I mean, they all do their own thing so well. They're all awesome in their own way. And I just love them all.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:44| It's really a special place, isn't it?
Drew Hardesty: |00:37:46| Yeah.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:47| As you look back, we talked a little bit about this earlier, but as you look back in your career, was there any moment where it really crystallized for you that this is where you wanted to spend your career?
Drew Hardesty: |00:37:57| It's the history, Tom. I mean, this is the birthplace of avalanche science and avalanche mitigation in North America, upper Little Cottonwood Canyon in the late thirties and forties. These grandfathers, Monte Atwater and Ed LaChapelle, that sort of built really built avalanche science and avalanche forecasting again from the late thirties and forties that really has set the benchmark for anyone else in North America. So it's an honor to be sort of part of that lineage here.
Tom Kelly: |00:38:28| It's really a fascinating approach. I'm a huge history buff, but I hadn't really thought about that. But this really is the epicenter of it.
Drew Hardesty: |00:38:34| It really is. Monte Atwater came back from World War Two with this idea of bringing howitzers and recoilless rifles to knock down the avalanches and upper little Cottonwood Canyon. And that continues to this very day.
Tom Kelly: |00:38:50| That's amazing. Last question, If you had to sum up in one word what it means to be out here in this beautiful backcountry, beautiful snow on the evergreens, snow coming down from the heavens, what's one word?
Drew Hardesty: |00:39:05| I can't Tom. It's a good life. It's a good life.
Tom Kelly: |00:39:09| We'll leave it at that. Drew Hardesty from Utah Avalanche Center. Thanks for leading me on a little trek up here in Big Cottonwood Canyon off the Guardsman Road. Appreciate all that you do and the team does at UAC to help keep us safe.
Drew Hardesty: |00:39:23| It's been a pleasure, Tom. Thanks so much.
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