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Strange snow conditions create fun, but also danger

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15 2014 9:49 p.m. MST

Skiers at Alta on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

ALTA — Even an overcast day on the mountain beats a sunny day at work.

Despite thick clouds and a brisk wind at higher elevations, throngs of people trekked to the various Wasatch Front area ski resorts Saturday. According to Ski Utah, President's Day weekend is the second busiest skiing weekend of the year.

At Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon, scores of people stood in line at the Collins Lift for the chance to play in Utah's "greatest snow on earth."

Temperatures in the 50s provided some spring-like conditions seldom seen during February at the resorts.

Snow totals have jumped dramatically this month thanks to a number of significant storms that resulted in several feet of new snow. Warmer temperatures in recent days have left the snow a bit heavier than normal, but avid skiers Courtney Cavalieri of Salt Lake City and Dominic Rucci of West Jordan said just being on the mountain was the start of a wonderful day of fun no matter what the conditions.

"I like it because I don't have to bundle up as much," Cavalieri explained with a laugh. "I don't mind overcast days. The temperature is good, there is good coverage and I'm just happy to be here!"

She hopes to ski even more Monday on President's Day to take advantage of a rare day off from her busy work schedule.

"It doesn't matter what the (weather) is outside, it's (fun) skiing," said Rucci, Cavalieri's skiing companion and a Pennsylvania transplant. "You don't get these mountains in Pennsylvania. Anytime I can get out is perfect!"

Dave and Lydelle Rumsey of Rochester, N.Y. were in Utah visiting their two sons, Greg and Chris, who attend college at BYU and BYU-Idaho. The family was out enjoying a ski day together.

"It's a little thick here and there, but there is real nice coverage and hardly any rocks," he said. "It's been awesome — really fantastic!"

His wife said she was having a tough time adjusting to the altitude, but was enjoying carving up the Utah snow.

"The skiing is great! It's just nice to be on the snow," she said.

Spring-like skiing conditions are expected to continue for the next several days, weather forecasters predict, with daytime highs in the 40s and low 50s and sunshine early next week. In the valleys, temperatures are expected in the 50s with a 20 percent chance of rain Sunday.

But the uncommonly warm weather pattern and heavy snowfall of late has created an increased threat of hazardous snow slides.

“We have very dangerous avalanche conditions this weekend, warned Evelyn Lees, backcountry avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center. “All areas in central and northern Utah either have a high or extreme avalanche danger right now in the backcountry.”

She noted that two people have already died in Utah slides so far this year. The increased danger is a result of “unusual avalanche conditions” along the Wasatch Front.

Because slides are also occurring on every direction of mountain fronts — north, east, south and west as well as at mid- and lower-elevation levels — backcountry enthusiasts should avoid going into those areas altogether.

“Backcountry travel is not recommended,” she warned, adding that the warning does not apply to developed ski areas or highways where avalanche control work is done.

Skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and hikers should stay on defined resort properties. Snowmobilers are also at extreme risk and should not venture out either, Lees said.

Those who who decide to forego the warnings should have “expert level” snow and terrain skills, she said. But the danger is so high, that doing so would be a life-threatening endeavor even for the most experienced person.

“Some of these slides are so large that they would not be survivable even with high-grade avalanche safety gear,” Lees said.

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com, Twitter: JasenLee1

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