Avalanche Risk High As First Utah Avalanche Awareness Week Begins
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Avalanche danger remained considerable in the mountains of the Wasatch Front and high in the Uinta Mountains due to the heavy snow that blanketed the state as November ended and Utah’s first Avalanche Awareness Week began.
After four people died in avalanches last year, lawmakers declared the first week in December as Utah Avalanche Awareness Week.
Their goal was to spread critical, lifesaving training to those heading to Utah’s backcountry.
“Our goal at the end of the day is to save lives,” said Utah Avalanche Center Executive Director Chad Brackelsberg. “We want to make sure that everybody who goes out in the backcountry to play can come home safe to their families at the end of each day.”
During Utah Avalanche Awareness Week, the Utah Avalanche Center will host 20 events statewide focused on teaching people how to identify avalanche terrain and avoid it. They will also show people gear they need to stay safe.
“Come join us at one of these events so you can take that first step on trying to learn the skills you need to be able to play safely and come home to your families,” Brackelsberg said.
Officials urged backcountry visitors to check the full slate of events and forecast hotline on the Utah Avalanche Center’s website.
“Get the forecast. Get the information,” said Dave Whittekiend, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest supervisor. “Understand the gear that you need to have, and then get out there and enjoy the snow that we have in the state of Utah.”
Recreation numbers showed more Utahns are heading into the backcountry on snowmobiles, skis and snowshoes than ever before. Officials said when you’re not at one of the resorts, it’s up to you to recognize avalanche dangers and avoid them.
“When an avalanche breaks, you’re totally out of control. It’s like being in a car accident going 80 mph,” said Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center.
Staples was swept around 800 vertical feet in an avalanche in Montana several years ago. As the slide banged him around, if he wasn’t killed, he knew he was with an experienced partner who could help.
“As it turned out, I ended up on top,” Staples said. “I wasn’t buried. I wasn’t injured. So, I got lucky. But, if I had been, he was there to take care of me.”
That’s why it’s critical for anybody who plays in the backcountry — and their partners — to get the education and training they need.
Over the last 20 years, Utah averaged nearly three avalanche fatalities each winter. A year ago, record-breaking snowfall lured plenty of people into the backcountry. Four Utahns were killed in separate avalanches statewide and another Utahn was killed in an avalanche in Idaho. That followed two winters in which Utah had no avalanche fatalities.
“People don’t even realize where they are until it’s too late,” said Utah Snowmobile Association President Cal Taylor, citing the extraordinary accessibility that today’s snowmobiles give anyone who hops on for a ride.
For that reason, the Utah Snowmobile Association began accelerating its avalanche safety outreach. Three of the Utahns killed in slides last year were on sleds.
“We can access so many different aspects of the terrain to put us into harm’s way so much quicker and easier than it is for somebody out hiking or skiing,” Taylor said.
At resorts statewide, rescue dogs train for avalanche emergencies. The dogs were gathered together Monday, playing at the Utah State Capitol during the kick-off of Utah Avalanche Awareness Week. The dogs are valuable because of the power of their noses.
“It would take hundreds of ski patrolmen to probe a slope and find someone buried under, and these guys can do that in minutes,” said Snowbird Ski Patrol member Margie Van Komen, who is also lead coordinator for Wasatch Backcountry Rescue.
Snowbird Ski Patrol member John Bildstein is training an 11-week-old yellow lab named Alli-gator, the newest member of their safety crew. The rescue puppy is learning the job from the big dogs.
Alli-gator is not ready for major call outs, yet, but learning the routines.
“We use their instinct,” Van Komen said. “We turn it into a game and go out and play.”