A snowslide in Little Cottonwood Canyon Sunday may be the signal that this year's avalanche season has started early.
Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service's Utah Avalanche Center, was taking pictures at Alta Ski Area on his day off when the slide triggered about 11:30 a.m. He was in a different area of the ski resort when he started to see the familiar faces of search and rescue volunteers and Alta resort officials.
The slide was released from Mount Baldy, with a peak elevation of 11,066 feet and 5 feet of snow. An Alta official checked the area and believed no victims were buried under the snow.
Normally, the ground should be bare. "This is the earliest snow I can remember in the almost 20 years that I've been here," Tremper said.
Most ski resorts along the Wasatch Front are not yet open for business, which means their employees are not hauling explosives up the mountains in the early hours of each morning to trigger slides that would otherwise inevitably be triggered by people. Ninety percent of avalanche accidents are triggered by the people who become the victims, Tremper said.
Impatient for the resorts to open, outdoor enthusiasts are trekking up the mountains with their skis and snowboards, determined to hit the fresh powder.
"When I was taking photography (Sunday), I was at the Alta parking lot, which was almost full of cars," Tremper said. "It looked like a regular Saturday that was open. People were crawling all over the mountain. There were hundreds of people everywhere."
Tremper worries that the pre-ski season crowd is unaware of the avalanche risk. He suspects many believe they are as safe as during ski season when the resorts' employees engage in avalanche control.
People may also falsely believe that it takes a large amount of snow for an avalanche. "There is 5 feet of snow at Alta at that location. We always say, 'If there's enough snow to ride, there's enough snow to slide.' "
The Utah Avalanche Center is staffed with seasonal employees who haven't even begun to work the new season. But Tremper had to call some people in last week to start doing afternoon updates on avalanche conditions on the Web site, www.avalanche.org, and on the avalanche hotline: 801-364-1581.