March 13th, 2019

By Andy Nassetta and Craig Gordon from the Utah Avalanche Center

The 2018-19 winter is best remembered for the abundance of snow and consistently stormy weather, making headline news throughout the west… and for a good reason. It’s an epic winter in nearly every snowbelt community on the west coast. Unfortunately, avalanche accidents eclipse the good news of deep riding and fist bumps at the trailhead and this seasons avalanche fatalities hit close to home here in Utah. Tragically, five Utah based family’s lives have been changed by avalanche accidents. And sadly, these stories could’ve had a different outcome at the end of the day with a better understanding of the avalanche danger, avoiding the terrain where that danger exists, along with wearing and knowing how to use avalanche rescue gear.

Knowing how we got to this point is critical, and I think we can learn quite a bit from a few key elements. As a matter of fact, four of the avalanche accidents in Utah all had common themes.

Regions that experienced avalanche accidents this winter usually have inherently shallow snowpack structure with weak, basal layers (faceted, sugary snow) forming near the ground. The weak layers often take long periods of time to heal, sometimes all winter. 
And while these zones see their fair share of avalanches each winter, because of their geographic location, don’t often see big storms producing dense, heavy, wind-driven snow like we saw this winter. We all know this has been an unusual winter. And in the avalanche business… unusual weather produces unusual avalanches.

This winters snowpack structure was tricky (strong snow overlaying weak snow), and deep, dangerous avalanches could be triggered from a distance or even low on the slope in the flats. With this setup we don’t even need to be on steep terrain in order to trigger a dangerous slide, we just need to be connected to it. Triggering avalanches low on the slope is especially dangerous for sledders, because once we kick the legs out from the snowpack, we’re right in the crosshairs of a deep, dangerous slide.

In each of the avalanche accidents (three snowmobilers, one skier), the groups lacked a full complement of avalanche rescue gear. Remember- it’s critical to carry all the gear because the beacon leads to the probe, which leads to the shovel, which leads to my partner. If I’m missing one piece of gear, I’m missing a critical component to help rescue my buried partner.

You can clearly see, each piece of equipment is reliant on one another to perform a successful rescue. Even more important than having the gear is knowing how to use it. 
Modern technology makes rescue equipment more user-friendly each season and the list of excuses to not carry the equipment and get the training to use it is dwindling. Not only do we carry the rescue equipment to stack the odds of survival if we become buried, but we also have a responsibility to our riding partners to offer the confidence in our ability to carry out an avalanche rescue. One of the best feelings as a backcountry rider is being solid in your ability, as well as your partners’ abilities to perform a rescue. Get the gear, get the training and ride with partners who chose to do the same.

Relying on an outside rescue. In everyday life, if we have an emergency, a fire for instance, we pick up the phone and have the fire department responding in no more than five minutes. Unfortunately, an emergency in the mountains cannot always be addressed in the same manner. Response times are much longer for a search and rescue party to reach the scene of an incident than it does the fire department to get to the burning house. In an avalanche event where someone is buried and only has fifteen minutes to be dug out, we are our partners best chance of survival.

When buried in an avalanche event, if not part of the 25% of victims that die from trauma taking the ride, and dug out by our partners within the first fifteen minutes we have a 90% chance of survival. After fifteen minutes has passed our odds of survival are greatly reduced to about 30%.

What are the takeaways from these statistics? That we need to be prepared for our own rescue and are responsible for our own safety and well-being when traveling in avalanche terrain and the backcountry. In typical avalanche incident where a person is caught, even if lucky enough to get them out in 15 minutes, it is very likely that they sustained trauma throughout the ride. 
Maybe that trauma was only a sprained ankle, but now you are unable to ride out of the drainage because it is too painful to work the sled. A small injury can quickly turn into an environmental emergency where you find yourself stuck in the woods for the night – things could turn ugly if ill-prepared.

And finally… the most important thing-
We all want to come home safely to our families at the end of the day, and avalanche avoidance is key. Please join me in helping to spread the avalanche gospel. Inform your riding buddies to check their local avalanche forecast. Remember…. the Utah Avalanche Center issues statewide daily avalanche advisories at utahavalanchecenter.org

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