Safe backcountry skiing starts with weeks of weather watching. I follow the wind and the moving snow. I watch the mountain weather stations to understand what is happening where I like to ski. I take note of the observations, forecasts and advisories offered by the Utah Avalanche Center. I make my plan only after I have determined where I can ski safely.
It snowed last night. The sun is coming up and I’m high above the Heber Valley. I’m with my ski buddies, out for a backcountry ski tour. We’re on alert for avalanches today because new snow tends to bring out instabilities in the snowpack. A variety of winter activities, including snowshoeing and snowmobiling, take place in the backcountry and we’re aware that people are involved in avalanches across our local mountains every year.
The Nightmare Scenario
I often imagine what I would do in an avalanche scenario. It is something I do to prepare for such a situation. It always goes a little like this…
My buddy drops onto a backcountry slope, makes a few wonderful turns in deep, fluffy snow. In the blink of an eye, our hearts drop into our stomachs as the snowy slope above and below him breaks apart like a shattered window pane. The snow rushes down the mountain in truck-sized chunks, carrying him with it.
I lose sight of my friend.
In what feels like an instant, it is over and all I see is a huge pile of clumpy snow at the bottom of the slope.
In a state of shock, I call 911 and get help on the way. As my heart beats frantically in my chest, I ski down to the point I last saw my friend. I use my transceiver beacon to read signals emitted from his beacon. It leads me to the strongest signal location.
My other ski buddy is ready. He probes that location and strikes something that feels like a person. We have mere minutes to extract our friend in order to save his life.
It has been four minutes since the avalanche.
With our shovels we dig. We tear at the snow, begging it to release our friend. Moments pass too quickly. Hash lines on the probe reveal that my friend is one meter under the surface. With all my strength, through tears and pain, muscles cramping in my arms and back from working the cement-like snow, I continue to dig.
He can’t breathe and I can’t move the snow fast enough.
The horror of the situation doesn’t end when we finally reach him. He’s blue in the face and his ski goggles are gone. Looking at the clock, it has only been eight minutes since the slide came to rest…
Learning from Experiences
Approaching the top of my second run, I stop. There is a naked tree, wind-blown and raw, with an empty howitzer shell nailed to it. Inside the shell is a bottle of High West Double Rye, a locally-distilled whiskey. Above is a picture of a man named Craig Patterson.
Craig was an avalanche forecaster who tragically died in an slide while making observations on Kessler Peak in Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was in April 2013 and it shook the local backcountry community, even though many of us never met him.
I give the man a tribute with a moment of quiet and move on up the ridge, contemplating fallen brothers and sisters of the backcountry.
I think about another avalanche that occurred February 2014. A 21-year-old woman was snowshoeing in the Tibble Fork area. She was caught in an avalanche in sight of the parking lot.
She did not survive.
Life or Death Education
It simply doesn’t matter how we recreate in the snow. We all have the potential to trigger an avalanche. There have been many instances of snowmobilers, snowshoers, cross-country skiers and other snow sport enthusiasts triggering slides.
The most important thing you can do this winter — for yourself and for others — is to get educated about avalanches and how to stay safe when recreating in the mountains.