Avalanche: Stairs Gulch

Observer Name
Jason W
Observation Date
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Avalanche Date
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Salt Lake » Big Cottonwood Canyon » Stairs Gulch
Location Name or Route
Stairs Gulch
Avalanche Problem
Gliding Snow
I will start off by saying this has taken me a week to write. I wasn't sure what to say or even if I should share this with anyone. After thinking that this could be a valuable learning experience for someone, I decided to submit my avalanche report, so here goes...
Stairs Gulch. We all know the danger that exists there, yet we still go play there.
On May 9, 2023 I headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon and parked across from the Storm Mountain Amphitheater. The big slide that happened in Stairs Gulch on May 3, I had to go see it. I grabbed my pack and I started recording my route on Gaia GPS at 5:36 pm and made the short walk up the trail, reaching the slide path in minutes. It was huge. I snapped a few photos and decided I wanted to see more, so I strapped my snowshoes on and started to venture up the avalanche path.
Now, before I go any further, I was well aware of what I was doing. I accepted the risk as soon as I made the choice to put those snowshoes on and start walking up that avalanche path. I consider myself to be very experienced with all the time I have spent in these mountains over the years, mostly as solo hiker, peakbagger and snowshoer. When it comes to avalanches, I know a little but still have a lot to learn. I have never put myself purposely in avalanche danger, until May 9, 2023.
That big slide from May 3 really made a mess in that gulch as I rounded the first bend. Huge blocks of snow everywhere with big trenches from different sized slides recently. Snow had piled up where slides had stopped. 20 feet maybe more. I dunno. The left side of the gulch had big snow walls that were taller than me and an extended hiking pole. You could also hear water underneath all that snow. It did not seem like the ideal side to be traveling on so I stuck to the right side. It seemed like easier travel. And why is that? The recent avalanches had created a smooth path to walk on. The angle increased significantly going up the slide around the first bend approaching the second bend, slowing me down. This area as you know, is also one of the shortest wall-to-wall widths in the bottom of the gulch. This area was filled with giant round balls of snow everywhere, making for slow going up this portion. I had contemplated just scrambling up the smalls cliffs on the left side at the second bend, but decided to keep on going around the bend. By this time, it was approaching 6:30 pm. I still had sufficient daylight remaining. However, rounding this bend, the terrain got harder to travel on. There was chunks of snow everywhere and was clear this portion of the gulch had been battered with avalanches as it had ran up both sides of the wall at least 10 feet. I chose to continue up the right side as the left side looked like it needed some crampons to walk up. I reached another old dirty slide path coming off the cliffs to the south. At this point the gulch has started to widen and the angle eases a great deal. I have now reached what is likely the widest portion of Stairs at around 6600 ft. It was now 6:30 pm. I left the right side of the gulch and made my way to the very center of this huge avalanche. It was now 6:39 pm as I was snapping photos and taking videos. It really was amazing to see all this debris everywhere you looked. 6:48 pm I thought about venturing on up further to the next bend in the gulch and the elevation climb of 1000+ ft. from that point, and the time, deterred me from it. I was at 6700 feet now and it was 6:53 pm. I am still taking photos and looking straight up the gulch towards that west facing wall. I'm smiling and having an alright time, not knowing I would be running for my life in the next 5 minutes. I take another photo at 7:00 pm...
Little did I know what I had just taken a photo of. Uh oh. There was a BIG glide avalanche that had broken loose on that west facing wall. We all know that spot that slides every spring, except I did not know it (until now). I didn't hear it at all. I caught a wall of moving snow out of the corner of my eye. I don't know how wide or tall it was. It looked easily twice as tall as I am. I just knew it was coming and I was still in the middle of that avalanche path where I had been snapping photos for 10 minutes. I ran, with snowshoes on, over avalanche debris. I had a choice to make and only seconds to make it. Left or right. I didn't know what way the slide was going. I saw some trees and dry ground and no snow on the left side. I don't know how I made it there, but I did. Had I chose the right, I would have been in the path of this slide.
It all happened so fast as I suppose most avalanches do. I think I was in shock from what just happened to me. I had a glide avalanche in Stairs Gulch after a record snowpack year heading straight towards me, and I didn't get buried. I didn't know what to do. That is when I realized that I had made it to safety and at the same time got myself severely tangled in some twisted up tree limbs. I still had my snowshoes on. I could not get free. It was quite the fight to get myself out of those trees that had been twisted by avalanches. I had literally ran into them with those snowshoes almost breaking my left leg. I don't know how I got myself out. And it wasn't even 7:05 yet. This had all happened in a matter of a few minutes. I turned around to catch the end of the avalanche going by. After all this time, it still made very little sound and only sounded like slush sliding by. I had managed to get those snowshoes off and finally out of those trees. I turned and snapped a quick photo at 7:09 pm of the last bit of snow sliding by. I am freaked out now. I sat on a fallen pine tree trying to gather myself. My ribs hurt, my lower body hurt, especially my left leg and knee. Now what do I do? I always carry a PLB with me. Do I call for help and risk putting someone else in danger an hour before sunset? I didn't want to do that. Finally at 7:24 pm, I put those snowshoes back on and took my chances. If I could make it past that second bend and to the first bend, I can make it. Or so I hoped. I took the chance of there not being two glide avalanches happen in the same place at the same time on the same day. I made my way down so slowly and this time I stayed to the (what is now right) opposite side of the gulch that the slide ran down. It was not fun.
At 7:57 I had reached the first bend and knew that I had made it. I don't know how, but I made it. I was so, so incredibly lucky on this day. If the state of Utah had a lottery, I'd have stopped and bought a ticket on the way home. I feel like I should not have returned to the car that night, instead being buried under who knows how much snow. Or have taken a ride directly into some cliffs and suffered some serious trauma. That avalanche broke around 9600 feet (I think) and made it down past the second bend and halfway down to the first bend. I don't know the estimates of the size. You can judge the width and length by the photos that I've included.
So, what did I learn from this incident? Well, for one, stay out of Stairs Gulch until those avalanches up high finish releasing. I was very fortunate to have only walked away with a swollen knee, massive bruises on my lower legs and a bruised lower rib. None of those are from the avalanche itself and only from me escaping into those trees.
I am not a good writer and I apologize for my long novel. I imagine this is the longest avalanche observation ever. This took a lot of time for me to type out. Some of it probably makes little to no sense with my explanations. I happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Had I started earlier, I likely would have continued on higher up, possibly ending up right where the slide broke. Had I started a little later, I may have been approaching that second bend as that slide was coming down it. All my photo stops, and when I started to slow going up that second bend, causing me to takes breaks, is what I believe could have saved me from getting there at the same time when the slide was coming down. Who knows.
My only hope in all this is that someone out there reads my story and gains a little knowledge from it.
Photo 1: Taken at 6:53 pm where I stopped to take photos in the middle of the slide path. Notice the snow is still dirty.
Photo 2: Taken at 7:00 pm. You can see see the slide had broken and was on the way towards me. I had no clue at the time.
Photo 3: Zoom shot showing the slide. I didn't see that in the photo until the next day.
Photo 4: This was where the slide caught my eye coming down towards me.
Photo 5: This was at 7:09 pm and was the only photo I got of the slide, which just shows snow.
Photo 6-9: Highlighting the beginning and showing the slide path towards the second bend. Notice the areas with white snow.
Photo 10-11: Showing time stamps at 6:53 moments before and then 7:00 of the slide breaking.
And to beat it all, I had my GoPro turned on, but not recording, and strapped to my head that entire time. That would have been great footage...
Thank you and stay safe out there.