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Avalanche-Related Deaths In Utah Take Emotional Toll On Rescuers

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Experts say the increased number of deaths has been taking an emotional toll not just on family and friends of the victims, but on search and rescue teams, as well.

On average, there are three avalanche-related deaths in Utah each year. In just the past four weeks, five Utah men have been killed in avalanches. Four of those deadly slides happened within state boundaries.

Mark McNeal is the ski patrol director at Brighton Ski Resort. He and his dog, Zak, are members of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. They’ve been helping people for 9 years.

Zak gets excited to do his job, but McNeal said it can occasionally be a very somber one.

“Most of our rescues are people who have been injured in the backcountry,” said McNeal.

Sometimes though, it’s already too late.

Their most recent recovery mission was just a few days ago. They went to Beaver County to recover the body of Brad Stapley. The St. George man was buried in an avalanche Thursday, while riding a snowmobile.

McNeal and Zak were the first dog team to arrive on scene.

“We were able to search a very specific area and it only took him a handful of minutes to locate him,” said McNeal.

McNeal said he knows what his job entails. By the time he and his dog are called out, it usually means it’s already too late for the victim. That doesn’t ease the emotional toll it takes.

“It is emotional,” he said. “On the scene we’re there to do a job but I’m talking with family members and stuff afterwards and it definitely hits home.”

Despite the nature of the business, search and rescue crews feel the magnitude of their jobs. Even when they can’t save someone, they’re still helping others, and that’s a reward all by itself.

Avalanche forecasters say the reason conditions are so dangerous this year is because there is a lot of dense snow piled high on top of weak, powdery snow.

They say the one thing you can do to stay safe is avoid areas like steep slopes, where avalanche danger is high.

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