Search and rescue experts worried about inexperienced skiers in the backcountry

Jan 11, 2024, 6:45 PM | Updated: Jan 12, 2024, 7:21 am

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Salt Lake County search and rescue is preparing for what could be a busy weekend along the Wasatch Front.

“We’re watching the forecast every day,” said Ryan Clerico, vice commander of Salt Lake County Search and Rescue. “This weekend will be a high avalanche hazard condition.”

With double-digit snowfall forecasted for Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and an influx of visitors expected to visit the resorts for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Clerico said the dozens of volunteers that make up the county’s SAR team are prepped and ready to go in the case of an emergency.

“The biggest mistake we see is people underestimating what they’re headed out into,” Clerico said.

Clerico is approaching his 11th year as a volunteer with Salt Lake County search and rescue, and he has helped the team perform hundreds of difficult rescues. In 2023, the team received 65 callouts, totaling nearly 9,200 hours of public service.

“One of the reasons I do SAR is because I get to meet the best people in the world on the worst day of their lives and help them out,” he said.

Ryan Clerico showing the equipment they will use during search and rescues.

Ryan Clerico showing the equipment they will use during search and rescues. (KSL TV)

Clerico said some of the most difficult rescues happen in the winter.

“Winter rescues are much more complicated; if somebody gets injured in the winter, hypothermia is harder, avalanche conditions are harder, everything takes longer and is more challenging for rescue crews,” he said.

Clerico said rescues this weekend could take longer if the team can’t use a helicopter due to weather conditions.

“Something like a simple knee injury in the backcountry may take three hours to get to that person,” he said. “We may have to do everything from the ground.”

Clerico urges outdoor enthusiasts to know the avalanche danger and stay in bounds at the resorts.

“Especially people coming in from out of town, as soon as you duck a rope or you leave a gate from a resort, you’re in the backcountry,” he said.

He said the biggest mistake he sees people make is underestimating the conditions.

“In the winter, that can be life-threatening,” Clerico said.

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Search and rescue experts worried about inexperienced skiers in the backcountry