Just because you love the mountains doesn’t mean they love you back. A day backcountry skiing or snowmobiling in Utah’s sparkling powder is as thrilling as it gets, but there is danger lurking both above and below. Not so much at the resorts, however, as snow safety patrollers are up early to stabilize any suspicious snowfields. You can hear the booming echoes as their explosive charges shake it up and bring the snow down early before the skiers head up.
But away from a controlled area, you’re often on your own, and you need to know what to avoid, and what’s safe. 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.
The best thing to pack with you is knowledge: what do you look for, what are the risks and dangers, how can you “read” a snowpack, and how can you rescue yourself, or others, if you didn’t make the right decisions. 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. So, before you launch yourself off of that cornice into that deep powder pillow, think about what may lay beneath.
First off, stay informed about the snowpack. There are professionals on the job to help. The forecasters at Utah Avalanche Center (utahavalanchecenter.org), a nonprofit that makes forecasts and educates backcountry users, keep 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 unable to support the new weight. This usually sorts itself out within a day or so after a storm cycle, but sometimes not. Lots of skiers have their number on speed dial: (888) 999-4019.
Since your fate is in your hands, 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. Avalanches can happen any time of the year.
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 underneath the white chunks, and avalanche probes or convertible ski poles to find buried skiers. A cell phone is a must, but you don’t have a lot of time, and you need to learn how to self-rescue.
When things go wrong, rescue teams can arrive quickly by helicopters, snowmobiles and skis. Your best friend will have four legs, not 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, 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 didn’t work out as planned. You can meet the avalanche dogs every Saturday at the Summit House at Park City Mountain at 1:00 p.m.