Avalanche awareness: Safety first
Ryan Summerlin December 21, 2012
Avalanches kill an average of 185 people every year. Thirty-six of those deaths take place in North America.
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) instructors Jonathon Spitzer and Freddy Grossniklaus are trying to lower those numbers, one avalanche-awareness lecture at a time.
AIARE, along with White Pine Touring, hosted a free lecture at the Park City High School Lecture Hall on Wednesday night to promote avalanche awareness and teach safety procedures for skiers who like to access the backcountry.
"Our goal with the presentations is to really inform the public about the dangers," Spitzer said. "We don’t want to scare people; we just want to make people more aware and promote education."
Avoiding unstable snow and being able to recognize avalanche terrain are two of the most important things backcountry skiers should do, according to the presenters.
Locally, Spitzer said he’s noticed that many Wasatch Range skiers are simply unaware of their surroundings in the backcountry, leading to a false sense of security.
"The more common thing here in the Park City area is that people often aren’t aware of the dangers," he said. "Once you leave the resorts, you’re in the backcountry."
Grossniklaus said during the presentation that recognizing avalanche terrain is easy if skiers know what to look for and where to look.
"Avalanche terrain is like real estate," he said. "It’s location, location, location."
In addition to a lack of awareness and poor terrain selection, the presenters added that poor communication and a willingness to take unnecessary risks often get backcountry skiers into trouble.
Spitzer added that, in spite of the expensive, hi-tech equipment they carry, too many backcountry skiers don’t familiarize themselves with the gear that could save their lives.
"It’s incredibly important to be properly prepared," he said. "It’s not just having the equipment; it’s being able to use it properly."
In addition to learning to use the equipment, acquiring the proper information beforehand is a key to a successful backcountry skiing adventure.
Spitzer said simply checking weather and avalanche conditions on the Utah Avalanche Center’s website can go a long way toward keeping potential backcountry skiers safe.
"I think (the Utah Avalanche Center’s website) is becoming more and more popular," he said. "They’re seeing a drastic increase in it and hopefully it helps some people out."
By properly utilizing all the tools and resources available, Spitzer said, backcountry skiers should be able to have a fun time on the slopes while also ensuring they return home alive.
Avalanche Safety Resources
Utah Avalanche Center: Utahavalanchecenter.org
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education: Avtraining.org
Essential Avalanche Safety Equipment
- Rescue beacon (transceiver)
Information from utahavalanchecenter.org