The La Sal Mountains are beckoning to outdoor recreationists right now, with more than three feet of fresh, powdery snow in the higher elevations.
If you’re one of those people who’s eager to hit the slopes, and you don’t know what to expect before you go, Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Eric Trenbeath is here to help.
On Thursday, Jan. 15 at 6:30 p.m., Trenbeath will be hosting a free avalanche awareness class at the Grand County Library, 257 E. Center St. The “Know Before You Go” class will offer snowmobilers, skiers and other recreationists tips about how to recognize avalanche terrain, along with the fundamentals of safe backcountry winter travel.
“It’s not designed to tell you not to go into the mountains and not to go into avalanche terrain, but to learn to recognize when you can and when you can’t, so that you can adjust your plans accordingly, based on current conditions,” Trenbeath said.
According to Trenbeath, the class will feature an exciting 15-minute video, along with a slide show presentation on avalanche awareness and a question-and-answer session.
Local Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center volunteer Ed Grote calls the class a good eye-opener for backcountry recreationists who want to stay safe, while having fun outdoors.
“There’s information available that can help you make a good decision about where to go,” Grote said. “It doesn’t have to be dangerous.”
In addition to picking up tips about avalanche safety, Trenbeath said that class participants will learn how weather, terrain and snowpack influence avalanche conditions.
“It’s a dynamic, sometimes-daily changing phenomenon that’s influenced by weather, particularly the wind and new snow,” Trenbeath said.
According to Trenbeath, they can keep those changing conditions in mind when they begin to make their backcountry travel plans.
“On some days, conditions are a green light for hitting the steep and deep, but other days, you’ve got to play it safe and stay on lower-angle terrain,” he said.
Grote said that’s often good advice to follow.
“We tend to ski in the trees, in the lower-angle stuff,” he said.
Both he and Trenbeath say that conditions in the La Sals have improved dramatically from Christmas Day onward.
“The skiing has gotten much better,” Grote said.
Currently, snowpack in the mountains east of Moab is up to 120 percent of normal, thanks to a series of storms that swept across the area in late December 2014. As of press time this week, snowpack totaled 38 inches in Gold Basin and 27 inches at the Geyser Pass Winter Trailhead.
“It came in without any winds, which is pretty remarkable for the La Sals,” Trenbeath said. “It made for excellent powder conditions.”
Avalanche conditions in the La Sals are currently rated as moderate, although Trenbeath advises people not to grow too cavalier when they hit the slopes: A quote from former Utah avalanche forecaster Tom Kimbrough springs to his mind.
“He said, ‘I wouldn’t go into a bar where I had a moderate chance of being killed,’” Trenbeath said.
Despite the moderate risks of avalanches – especially on steep slopes of 35 degrees or more – Grote said there are still plenty of nice, safe places to ski in the La Sals.
Lower Utah Nordic Alliance (LUNA) volunteers groom a number of trails around Geyser Pass, while San Juan County crews plow the road up to the parking lot. Speaking of which, Trenbeath encourages Geyser Pass visitors to park their vehicles in designated areas.
“The Forest Service would like to ask that people use the parking lot, and not park on the road at the base where people like to sled,” he said.
Drivers won’t have to go to any extra effort to reach the lot, where they should find ample parking.
“It’s less than 100 feet away,” he said.
Library hosts free Jan. 15 avalanche awareness class
For more information about the latest avalanche conditions in the La Sals, go to utahavalanchecenter.org. Click on “Advisory,” and then go to “Moab.”
What: “Know Before You Go” avalanche awareness class
When: Thursday, Jan. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Grand County Library, 257 E. Center St.
“There’s information available that can help you make a good decision about where to go.”