Avalanche centers around the western United States warned of continuing dangerous conditions today, after a series of avalanches killed five people in December.
At least 39 people have been killed in avalanches in 2008 so far, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, including two snowmobilers who died Wednesday in an avalanche on Logan Peak near the Utah-Idaho border.
Avalanche centers in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming issued warnings today as heavy storms battered the region, telling skiers to stay out of the backcountry, and in some cases saying they expected dangerous conditions to continue into the weekend.
"The avalanche hazard is high virtually everywhere in the West right now, from the southern Sierras through the northern Rockies," said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center.
The National Weather Service issued winter storm warnings and advisories for large parts of the West, including Oregon and Washington state. A blizzard warning for southwest Colorado warned that as much as 3 feet of snow was possible. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a winter storm emergency Wednesday as counties faced near record levels of snowfall.
Early snowfall in late October created an unusually unstable snowpack that can easily break apart, explained Abromeit as did Brett Kobernik, a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center.
Recent heavy snowfall piled on top of that unstable base has led to a large number of recent avalanches.
"It's like trying to place a car on top of a pile of potato chips," Kobernik said.
Earlier this month, three skiers in Colorado and Utah found themselves in the midst of a snowy nightmare when heavy snowfall triggered multiple avalanches. Two of the skiers died, but one survived by "swimming" for his life.
Matt Jones was skiing on a slope called Lover's Leap in Vail, Colo., when he suddenly felt the snow break under him.
"I landed fine, made one turn to the left and I heard a whumph and knew the slope was sliding," Jones told "Good Morning America." "I tried to get my skis pointed down the hill and hopefully ski out from one of the sides. It was too late at that point. I knew it had me. ... It was just a matter of trying to ride it down and stay on top and keep from getting buried."
Snow patrol often use dynamite to shake loose heavy snow to avoid avalanches.
They recommend that skiers and snowboarders carry electronic avalanche beacons, so they can be located quickly if they are buried under the snow.
For more information, contact the Forest Service's National Avalanche Center.