Learn more about avalanches and how to stay safe
January 10, 2018
The mountains are beautiful, but there are some dangers that can lurk in the snowpack. Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain have highly trained ski patrols who ensure that there is no danger on their runs. That bombardments you hear on a snowy morning high above town are the hand charges and long guns that are shaking it now, so it won't roll later. But out-of-bounds, it's a different story.
When conditions are right (or wrong) the snow can thunder down a mountain, snapping trees, rolling over cliffs, and knocking you off of your skis. If you're lucky, you're on top of the avalanche when it stops; if not, hope that one of your pals has a snow shovel and radio beacon to find you ASAP, or sooner.
As more people head away from the controlled resorts, you really need to educate yourself as to the risks and danger, whether you're on skis, snowboards or snowmobiles. Plus, releasing a slide might not endanger you, but it certainly can put the people below you in harm's way, not to mention the rescue personnel who risk their lives trying to save lives. So, before you launch yourself off of that cornice into that deep powder pillow, think about what may lay beneath.
The most basic tool is to stay informed about the snowpack. There are professionals on the job to help. The forecasters at Utah Avalanche Center, a nonprofit that makes forecasts and educates backcountry users, keeps track of the snow, how it's changed by temperature and wind and what the chances that a certain exposure might slide. If it's been sunny for a long time and it just dumped, chances are that the bottom layers of snow are a bit weak, and unable to support the new weight. This usually sorts itself out within a day or so after a storm cycle, but sometimes not.
If you want to know even more, then take an avalanche class and learn to read the snowpack, which involves digging pits in the snow, and actually looking at the layers, the bonding, and even the structure of the snow crystals. And avalanches can happen anytime of the year: Beware the Slides of March. So be safe, and check the forecast before you go, and understand what it means by calling the UAFC at 801.524.5304 or go online at UtahAvalancheCenter.org.
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There are a couple of basic tools you should have with you if you're in the backcountry. These include a metal snow shovel, a radio beacon that can help locate you beneath the white chunks, and avalanche probes, or convertible ski poles to find buried skiers. A cell phone is always handy as well, but you won't have a lot of time to dig up your pal, so you need to learn how to self-rescue.
When things go wrong, rescue teams arrive quickly by helicopters, snowmobiles and skis. Your best friend will have four legs instead of two and a nose so sensitive they can detect buried skiers.
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue trains local rescue dog teams (a handler and their dog). Members include Park City Mountain, Deer Valley, Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton, Snowbasin, the Wasatch Powderbird Guides, Sundance, the U.S. Forest Service, AirMed, Life Flight, and the Utah Department of Transportation. They are all there for you if you mess up and take a chance that doesn't work out as planned. You can meet the avalanche dogs every Friday at Canyons Village Ski Beach at 4:30 p.m.