20 years after fatal avalanche, an investigator and survivor meet for the first time

Dec 26, 2023, 5:53 PM | Updated: Dec 27, 2023, 5:57 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Craig Gordon and Matt Long had never met before Tuesday. However, they have been connected for 20 years.

“Well, it makes me feel honored to meet you. How are you?” Gordon said to Long.

“I am good. Real good,” Long answered.

It was 20 years ago, the day after Christmas 2003, when Long and some friends went snowboarding near Aspen Grove at the base of Mount Timpanogos after a massive snowstorm dumped fresh powder across northern Utah.

They got caught in a record-breaking avalanche. Some of Long’s friends didn’t make it.

“I can still see it very vividly in my head. I can put myself back there exactly. All the noises. Everything. The chaos,” Long said.

Gordon, who is now well known as an avalanche forecaster for the U.S. Forest Service’s Utah Avalanche Center, remembers investigating that avalanche early on in his career. The deaths from that avalanche are what prompted him to help begin the “Know Before You Go Program.

“I did not want another young person struggling. A family struggling. A partner struggling. I know that avalanche education saves lives, and the Know Before You Go program is a testament to that,” Gordon said.

Craig Gordon (right) and Matt Long (left) speaking about the experience that left an impact on both of them in different ways.

Gordon (right) and Long (left) speaking about the experience that left an impact on both of them in different ways. (KSL TV, Eddie Collins)

That program lets people know where the avalanche risks are, and what you can do to be safer, and raises awareness of how and why avalanches happen. The program has been translated into 11 languages and is in over 40 countries. It all started because of what happened 20 years ago.

“This tragedy has actually saved lives not only locally, but globally,” Gordon said.

It is why Gordon wanted to meet Long. The Utah Avalanche Center sent out a release about how much has changed in avalanche forecasting since that 2003 incident. When KSL received that release, we called Long for an interview, knowing he was a survivor of that massive slide.

KSL then called the Utah Avalanche Center for an interview, and when we told Gordon who we were interviewing, he wanted to meet him.

Right away, they joked about their common hairstyles with a bun on top of their heads.

“We have a similar hair thing going, I might add,” said Gordon.

“Right?” Long responded.

However, Gordon wanted Long to know how much positivity came from that tragedy.

“I know how much this hurts. But I also know that this helped others not feel this hurt,” Gordon said.

“Good,” Long said.

Long also mentioned to Gordon he would be more than happy to speak at some of the Utah Avalanche Center’s education classes to give a perspective of what it was like on that day and how quickly you can be buried in snow.

“The more we can talk about this and raise some awareness that it can happen to anyone, the better off everyone will be,” Long said.

“Thank you for that,” Gordon responded.

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20 years after fatal avalanche, an investigator and survivor meet for the first time