Avalanches continue to claim the lives of backcountry travelers in record numbers. Having proper avalanche rescue gear and an education on avalanche danger can help mitigate the risks, however even the most knowledgeable and well-equipped backcountry enthusiasts aren’t guaranteed immunity from the fatal threat.


Most recently in Utah, an avalanche forecaster for the Utah department of transportation was killed in a slide on April 11. Craig Patterson, 34, was out doing his job in the Big Cottonwood canyon.  Tumbling snow claimed his life as he was trying to make the backcountry safer for other travelers.

In Colorado, the lives of five avalanche experts were lost in an avalanche over the weekend. They were, ironically, promoting backcountry safety during a fundraising event for the Colorado avalanche information center. All five were carrying the proper avalanche safety gear, but it wasn’t enough to save their lives.

“You’re not going to live long enough to get a rescuer like me in there,” said veteran mountain rescuer and Brighton ski patroller Steve Achelis. “The best thing you can do to survive an avalanche is avoid it in the first place.”

Trends in the skiing industry are amplifying the danger. Technology is making it easier than ever to ride in the backcountry. Fatter skis and alpine touring equipment make it simple to reach and enjoy the fresh snow that lies beyond resort boundaries. Safety technology has improved dramatically, but it’s up for debate whether this technology actually makes the backcountry safer or creates an illusion of safety for many who venture beyond the gates.

Clark Fyans is an avalanche expert who has worked as an avalanche forecaster and backcountry guide for recent winter sports films like, “The Art of Flight.” He says that even during filming, athletes are always facing avalanche dangers.

“It’s not something that we really want to put in the movies and say, ‘Oh look how cool it is, we’re getting caught in avalanches,” Fyans said. “In the reality, it does happen.”

Despite the dangers, professional athletes and weekend warriors alike continue to push the limits to see how far they can go into the backcountry, and resorts are embracing the trend. In the past, ski areas such as Jackson Hole and Alta would pull a skier’s pass for entering the backcountry. These days, resorts actively market their “sidecountry” terrain — the unpatrolled area adjacent to the resort.


The harrowing stats shouldn’t fully discourage Utahns looking to enter the backcountry, though. The biggest cause of avalanche deaths is skiers and snowboarders who don’t have the knowledge base needed to keep them safe. Along the Wasatch Front, there are plenty of avenues to get educated on backcountry safety and get ahold of the necessary equipment.

The Outdoor Recreation Program at the University of Utah provides affordable safety gear rentals. You can pick up a beacon, shovel and probe for $25 for the weekend. The ORP also rents alpine touring gear, split boards, and skins. Having the safety gear is one step, but it doesn’t do much good without knowing how to use it.

“For me, it’s kind of a love-hate relationship,” says Brian Wilkinson of the ORP. “It gives them a sense of safety but it doesn’t ensure their safety — it’s just an emergency thing.”

The Utah Avalanche Center provides more than just a forecast. It also facilitates classes for people to gain a better understanding of the snowpack, recognize avalanche danger and properly use rescue equipment.

“We want to keep people on top of the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth,’ rather than buried beneath it,” Craig Gordon of the Utah Avalanche Center said.

Information on upcoming classes can be found by visiting the Utah Avalanche Center website.


Backcountry Danger on the Rise

Posted: February 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

Backcountry 101

Posted: February 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


Canyons Ski Patrol along with the Utah Avalanche Center teaches a classroom session before hitting the snow


Craig Gordon, avalanche forecaster for the UAC, heads up backcountry 101


Craig Gordon addresses the group before heading into the backcountry at Canyons Resort


Signs clearly state the fatal danger of traveling in uncontrolled environments


The group heads out of bounds for avalanche training


Craig Gordon and the rest of the group scopes out a fresh line


Finally, the group learned how to dig pits and recognize snow layering