Increased funding supports Avalanche Center
The only sound to be heard in the the backcountry is the drop of snow flakes and the whisk of skis cutting through powder.
That silence could be deadly, however. The untrained eye may not notice the teetering snow shelves, until it’s too late.
Contrary to popular thinking, avalanches are not caused by loose snow.
Avalanches are due to "slabs of snow," said Bruce Temper, the director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center. When a skier triggers an avalanche it’s "like a shattering pane of glass or a magazine sliding off a table. It slides as a unit off the mountainside."
If it was "just a bunch of loose snow, few people would get killed," Tremper said. "It’s like a huge trap that’s sprung on you when you step in the wrong place."
The Utah Avalanche Center attempts to save lives every year by educating the public and creating awareness among backcountry travelers.
"We try to keep people on top of the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’ instead of buried beneath it," Tremper said. "There’s an average of four avalanche fatalities a year, which is four too many.’
Earlier this year, the center was facing a potential decrease in funding but according to Tremper, this month the sate House approved a one-time, $122,000 grant for the center.
"Hopefully, it will make it through the Senate," Tremper said. "We started out this season looking kind of grim but now it looks better."
Tremper credits the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center for their efforts in lobbying local legislators.
"The Friends have been pushing since last summer to get this through the Legislature," Tremper said. "The state of Utah is a majority funding partner for the avalanche center. We are a forest service program working for the federal government. Most of the funding comes from other sources. The state of Utah is the largest partner as far as cash funding goes."
Privately, the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center raises approximately $50,000 a year, according to Tremper with most of the funding going to education programs.
"Of the avalanche fatalities that occur, about half of those are by ignorance," Tremper said. "The other half does know about avalanches, they know it’s dangerous but they do it anyway. We are trying to reach both those user groups."
In the past, the center focused on "hardcore users, the people who know about avalanches such as skiers, climbers, snowmobiliers and snowboarders."
"In the last few years there’s an increased number of people that go into the backcountry who know nothing of avalanches," Tremper said. "They are the main group that is getting killed.
"Most of our efforts have gone to outreach programs, just to reach people who know nothing about avalanches until it’s too late," he said.
Through this summer, the new funding will help the center create posters, outreach programs, classes, public service announcements and Web-site development.
"People could spend a day wandering through our Web-site and see the wealth of information available," Tremper said.
The Website provides daily forecasts, advisories and maps.
"It’s based on personal experience and mapping out where it’s dangerous and not dangerous. There’s an army of volunteer observers. Our office is at the airport command central and we have a lot of information from a lot of different places, our job is to put it together and to give critical information to keep people alive," Tremper said.
Tremper says almost all avalanche accidents can be avoided.
"People that are really good travel in the backcountry al the time, if you’re skilled, you can avoid almost all accidents," Tremper said.
To avoid avalanches, people who venture out need to be educated.
"We suggest people, No. 1, get the current avalanche information online or call. Information can save your life," he said.
No. 2, Tremper said people should take a class.
"Avalanches are complicated and people overestimate their avalanche skills. It takes quite a bit of schooling to be avalanche savvy," Tremper said.
It takes training to recognize avalanche terrain, the stability of a snow pack and to learn how to travel safely and rescue skills.
"People can’t just go to a one-hour lecture and be an expert," Tremper said. "The class educates people on the problem and being aware of it. Just that class can save people’s lives because they’ll go out on a bad place on a bad day and something will click that ‘maybe I shouldn’t be here cause I remember that guy in the class saying this’"
Using public land, Tremper says, is one of the great things about America.
"But the flipside is, it can be dangerous," Tremper said.
People should also be armed with the right gear when they take on the backcountry.
"They should have shovels, probes, and beacons. That should be the minimum if they are going into avalanche terrain," Tremper said. "Inside a ski area boundary you are safe because they knock down the avalanche. As soon as you step outside of the Disney land of the ski area, you are stepping into the Stone Age.
"For A lot of people, it’s difficult to make the mental switch. As soon as you step across that rope line, it can be very dangerous." Temper continued. "Really no one should go across that rope without a beacon, shovel and probe and without taking an avalanche class."
For more information on the Utah Avalanche Center, go to http://www.avalanche.org/~uac/ or call (801) 524-5304.
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