For the week of December 30, 1998   thru January 5, 1999  

Avalanche danger is considerable

Check hotline and Web site before you go

Express Staff Writer

snow.jpg (7843 bytes)Piles of snow greeted drivers Monday morning after 15 to 18 inches of new snow fell overnight. The snowfall brought glee to skiers on Bald Mountain but warnings of avalanche danger for backcountry enthusiasts. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

"Considerable hazard" is the official designation for the current avalanche danger in the backcountry.

"This is a time when a sneaky snowpack exists in many places," Janet Kellam, avalanche specialist with the U.S. Forest Service Sun Valley Avalanche Center, says. "The backcountry will have a lingering avalanche hazard for this week at least, and possibly longer."

While backcountry conditions are hazardous, avalanche conditions on Bald Mountain are well in control, according to Kellam.

"Those guys on the ski patrol," she says, "do an outstanding job of making sure the mountain is safe."

Despite the recent heavy snowfall, the avalanche control work by the patrol on Monday morning enabled them to open nearly the entire mountain for a memorable day of skiing.

Bruce Malone, head of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, warned that early morning skiers, hikers and snowshoers who climb up Bald Mountain after a heavy snowfall like Monday’s are putting themselves and ski patrol members at risk.

"When we are doing avalanche control, the mountain is closed," Malone said.

He pointed out that people climbing Bald Mountain after a snow storm before it has been opened are in danger of both avalanches and the bombs the patrol uses to trigger them.

"Anyone who goes outside the ski area boundaries is on their own," Malone emphasized. "It isn’t controlled or patrolled out there, and you’d better be sure that whoever you’re with knows what they’re doing."

Even within the ski area there are areas that can and do slide, no matter what control work is done.

Kellam says that there are buried weak layers in the snowpack even beneath the heavy layer of new snow.

"Anyone venturing into the backcountry should stay on more low-angle slopes," she said.

The most dangerous slopes, according to Kellam, are those between 30 and 45 degrees in steepness in the mid to upper elevations of the Wood River Valley and environs. She also warned that the area beneath such slopes and anywhere in the run-out area of potential avalanches are dangerous.

"Many things can trigger a slide--the weight of a skier or snowshoer or snowmobiler, or, in some cases, the weight of the 10th skier on the same slope," Kellam says. "The temperature can trigger an avalanche, particularly when it warms up as it is doing. Snow on a slope settles and creeps downward just like snow on a roof of a house or a car. It follows gravity, and you don’t want to be in its way."

Avalanche fatalities in the U.S. are increasing.

In the 1995-96 season, 29 people died in avalanches in the U.S.; in the 1996-97 season 35 people died; in the 1997-98 season 46 died.

Kellam and the other members of the Sun Valley Avalanche Center are working to reverse this trend.

Daily local avalanche conditions are available from the center’s telephone hotline at 788-1200 extension 8027 and on the web at and at


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