Snow Safety Tips From the Utah Avalanche Center
- Posted On
- Jan 13, 2021
- Northern Utah
By Craig Gordon
There’s so much uncertainty leading up to the 2020-21 winter season, but one thing we know for sure is winter always happens, Utah’s mountains receive a remarkable amount of snow, and we have amazing terrain, often close to our own backyards. The other thing we know is that avalanches are going to occur.
That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the Greatest Snow on Earth, but it does mean we need to do it safely. And fortunately for all of us, there’s good news, especially if we ride at one of our world-class resorts because inside the ski resort boundaries, the hard-working women and men of the ski patrol routinely knock avalanches down and make the slopes safer for us. And on a storm day, all this hard work occurs early in the morning, usually before we even roll into the parking lot. However, avalanche reduction work at ski resorts or above highways can occur anytime the avalanche danger is rising. And that can happen when the temperatures rapidly rise, or the wind blows, or during and right after a big storm.
So it’s pretty clear the safest place, in terms of predictable avalanche danger, is sticking to the resorts and riding in-bounds. However, as our skills get better, we get bored riding in the resort, and we want to get fresh powder shots. So it’s this combo that drives us to explore more challenging backcountry terrain and that’s where nearly all avalanche accidents happen.
Now, what if I don’t ski or board… I snowshoe, snowmobile… I hike with my family... now what?
Remember, avalanches don’t know I’m an expert skier, snowboarder, snowmobiler, hiker, or snowshoer. But here’s the good news... you don’t need to be a snow scientist in order to travel safely in the backcountry and enjoy the Greatest Snow on Earth. However, you do need to avoid avalanches altogether because avalanches are tremendously violent events. and when we get caught in a slide it’s like a bad car crash and we usually wind up on the losing end.
So, the best way to avoid avalanche danger is to arm ourselves with the latest avalanche information because “Knowledge is Powder.”
Checklists are simple and here are five things to remember:
1 – Get the Gear
Essentials: avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe, one doesn’t work without the other. Not only do you have to wear the gear, but you also need to know how to use it. That means practice and practice often!
2 – Get the Training
Take an avalanche class. Know Before You Go (www.kbyg.org) it’s a great start and it’s free!
3 – Get the Forecast
4 – Get the Picture
Look for signs of unstable snow. Recent avalanches are the biggest clue!
5 – Get out of Harm’s Way
At the bottom of the slope, get to a location where you’re in a safe zone if your partner triggers a slide.
All of these done together is the first step in keeping you aware and safe in the backcountry. Taking the time to get the information on the current conditions that day before heading out is important and worth it. Weather is rapidly changing in the mountains, and being aware of those changes could be the thing that keeps you safe that day. Invest in furthering your education before the season starts, Know Before You Go Classes are free and accessible online at www.kbyg.org. But of course, have fun. We are incredibly fortunate to have The Greatest Snow on Earth right outside our backyard.
The Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) provides avalanche forecasting, awareness, and education in the State of Utah, giving backcountry travelers the tools they need make wise decisions in the backcountry. The UAC maintains the most comprehensive avalanche website in the U.S. with daily advisories, video tutorials, field observations, a glossary, media resources, a database of snow profiles, photos, videos, calendar of events, list of all avalanche courses taught in Utah, sponsor list, donation request, links to national resources, and more.
The UAC provides lecture and field-day avalanche classes at a moderate cost. Addressing practical snowpack science, terrain management, rescue, and decision-making, as well as advanced topics and the needs of specific user groups such as professional skiers, filmmakers, and snowmobilers. The UAC collaborates with other groups such as ski resorts and guide services providing guided backcountry skiing and multi-day avalanche certification and sidecountry-specific courses.
Author Bio: Craig Gordon is the media coordinator for the UAC and the sole avalanche forecaster for the western Uinta Mountains, an area accessed primarily by snowmobile, and also handles much of the avalanche education for snowmobile groups. Craig has done avalanche control for Brighton Ski Area in Utah since the mid 1980s, and then worked as a helicopter ski guide. He has worked for the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center since 2000. Craig developed the Know Before You Go avalanche awareness program for young adults in 2004, which has been extremely popular. The one-hour program includes a 15-minute video and slide show presentation and is taught by a team of local avalanche professionals. The program has directly reached over 175,000 students in Utah to date and has spread around North America. Craig's legendary enthusiasm and communication skills keep him in high demand on the avalanche lecture circuit and television appearances.