Avalanche forecasters work hard to keep backcountry travelers safe
Every morning before dawn, forecasters from the Utah Avalanche Center gather information on avalanche conditions in their assigned areas and prepare reports for the public, all in the hopes that well-informed backcountry travelers can avoid the worst.
Mark Staples, who took over as director of the UAC in October after serving as an avalanche forecaster in Montana, said with this week’s heavy snow falling on top of the existing base layer of sugary snow, conditions are ripe for avalanches.
"I come from an engineering background," he said. "And snow is a material, just like anything else. If you build a house on a poor foundation, it won’t hold up. It’s the same with the snowpack."
Staples said he was attracted to the field of snow science only after realizing how complicated it could be, and how much there was to learn.
"I thought snow was just snow, until I took a shovel and dug into the snowpack," he said. "When you dig in and see the layers, you’re seeing a complete record of that winter’s weather. It’s fascinating. I wanted to learn how those layers interact. If you can understand that interaction, you understand avalanches."
The UAC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and it covers the entire state and has offices in Logan, Moab, and Salt Lake City. Staples said the UAC has an excellent team of forecasters, but even they cannot always be sure of what they are seeing.
"Trying to nail down exactly what is going on with the snowpack is tough," he said. "It’s like putting on blurry glasses and then trying to hit a moving target. Because snow is actually a warm material. It’s close to its melting point, and it’s constantly changing, so it really keeps us on our toes."
Add to that the human element, Staples said, and forecasting avalanches becomes even harder.
"If it was the snowpack alone it would be interesting, but then you bring people into it, and I don’t think anyone would say people are easy to predict," he said. "Those two complicated things and how they interact makes for a real challenge."
Staples said there are two or three UAC forecasters out in the field every day, gathering hands-on data and observations of their own, which they can then use as one piece to formulate a forecast.
"You can’t forecast avalanches from the office, you need that field data, so that’s a big part," he said. "We also take observations from the public, from ski areas, from the department of transportation, and we put all that together to try to come up with a summary for the public."
Those who plan to go backcountry skiing or hiking — that is, outside of established ski boundaries — are urged to check the UAC forecast in the morning, either by calling the hotline or visiting the website. Staples said there are things people can look out for while out on the mountains to keep themselves safe.
"The number one clue is recent avalanches," he said. "If you see an avalanche, there is a good chance you will see another."
Staples said the UAC has observed many avalanches outside of the ski areas over the past week, and with this week’s heavy storm moving in, people need to be extra cautious.
"With this storm we’re going to put a lot of fresh snow on top of that unstable snowpack, and that’s a pretty easy formula," he said. "If the forecast holds up we could see a lot of avalanches."
One thing Staples said he recommends before backcountry traveling is a class. The UAC offers them, he said, and so do a lot of other groups.
"It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty simple, but you do need to take a class to know what to look for," he said. "It’s like when I go out with my hunter friends. We’re walking through the forest and they are seeing all kinds of things I don’t, because they have the experience."
Staples said he tries to warn skiers in particular to be careful when they are up on the mountain.
"There is a huge difference between being in a ski boundary and being outside of it, but visually, they look the same," he said. "Think of it this way: these ski areas are spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to lower the risks in their boundaries. Outside of them, there’s nothing.
"Visually, it looks the same. It’s all white. It looks like beautiful powder, and it’s awfully tempting."
Staples said the UAC recommends backcountry travelers bring three things with them: a shovel, a probe and an avalanche beacon (a radio transceiver used to locate people or equipment lost in snow).
"Even that is no guarantee you will survive. It just means we will be able to find you," he said. "People need to remember, an avalanche is a violent event, like a bad car wreck. You might come out alive but you might not. That’s why avoidance is the key."
There are five things Staples said the UAC asks people to keep in mind when they head out, and they are: get the gear; get the forecast; get the training; get the picture (be observant, in other words); and finally, get out of harm’s way.
"That means avoiding any suspect slopes that might avalanche and also, sort of our last line of defense, which is to only expose one person at a time," he said. "That way if an avalanche triggers, the rest of the party is safe and right there to dig that person out."
Staples said winter visitors who would like to travel the backcountry while they are in town should not try to do so on their own.
"If you are interested in going out of ski bounds, hire a guide," he said. "The guide can take you into the backcountry, they can show you where it is safe, and they can take you to where the good skiing and boarding is.
It’s very easy to ride up a chairlift and ski right outside the boundary. I get it. The snow looks great. But understand, it’s a whole different world out there. If you’re serious about it, take a class or hire a guide."
For more information or to check the day’s forecast, call the hotline at 888-999-4019 or visit UtahAvalancheCenter.org.
Utah Avalanche Center’s Five Key Tips
Get the gear
Get the forecast
Get the training
Get the picture
Get out of harm’s way
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The people at the second part of the Park City Future Summit were nearly unanimous in indicating they have some level of concern.