Record editorial: Tragedies underscore backcountry dangers
Before a single snowflake fell in Utah this winter, avalanche forecasters were sounding the alarm: It was shaping up to be a particularly dangerous season in the backcountry.
The warnings, unfortunately, have proven prescient.
In the last four weeks, avalanches on the Park City ridgeline have killed two people, the latest slide claiming the life of a 57-year-old Parkite on Saturday outside the boundaries of Park City Mountain Resort.
Both fatalities are tragic. The victims leave behind loved ones whose lives are forever changed and who now must grapple with a grief that most of us can only imagine. The Park City community joins them in their mourning.
But no one else has to lose their life in an avalanche this season. The deaths underscore just how serious the risks in the backcountry are and should serve as a wake-up call to other users.
The avalanche danger is not expected to disappear anytime soon, and in many ways, the risks are even greater than what forecasters predicted before the winter. In the fall, their assessment was based on the likelihood that users would be flocking to the backcountry in record numbers due to the pandemic and the various restrictions at Utah’s ski resorts. They feared that many people would venture into the backcountry without the expertise and equipment required to navigate it safely.
The unusual weather this winter has further heightened the danger. Early snowstorms followed by a sustained dry spell have left a weak layer at the bottom of the snowpack that is likely to remain. The director of the Utah Avalanche Center told The Park Record that it would take an extraordinary change in the weather like a storm dropping 6 or 7 feet of snow, or another extended dry period, for the conditions to dramatically improve in the near term.
Meanwhile, the director said avalanche experts are also confronting another challenge: message fatigue. Some experts worry that, rather than hammering home the reality of the danger, the consistent messaging about backcountry safety might not be having the desired effect.
“We can’t cry wolf,” the director said, for fear of losing credibility.
Make no mistake: This is not a case of crying wolf. The avalanche risks in the backcountry are real, and the recent tragedies show that a blissful afternoon on untouched powder can turn deadly in an instant.
With several more weeks left in ski season, and the dangerous conditions persisting, there is the potential for more disaster. To avoid that, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers must be diligent about being properly educated and equipped before they enter the backcountry. And when the conditions warrant such caution, they should avoid it altogether.
More information about backcountry safety, including avalanche forecasts, is available at utahavalanchecenter.org.
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