Record editorial: Backcountry caution is necessary during active avalanche cycle
February 21, 2019
It's been a banner ski season in Utah by most measures — particularly the kind one performs with a yardstick.
But while outdoor enthusiasts have rejoiced at the plentiful snow, one number shows the danger that accompanies it: four. That's how many people in the state have died in avalanches this winter, including a 49-year-old man killed in a slide earlier this month in eastern Summit County.
The tragedies are the first avalanche deaths in Utah since January of 2016, snapping a streak of two winters without any. And they are a reminder that, though many of us live in the mountains to take advantage of the recreational opportunities the backcountry offers, it's imperative to account for the inherent danger.
The threat has been particularly apparent this season. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, more than 100 slides have been reported statewide in February alone. In addition to the four fatalities this winter, there have been numerous near misses and slides that required the rescues of buried recreaters.
One such close call happened Saturday near Guardsman Pass, when a group of three skiers triggered a 200-foot slide that fully buried one of them. Fortunately, the other members of the group were equipped with avalanche gear and were able to dig the skier out within a minute.
That's a lesson that can benefit others thinking about venturing into the backcountry. Put simply, recreaters shouldn't even consider it without both the proper equipment and the know-how to use it. Nor should they enter the backcountry without the ability to identify areas susceptible to an avalanche.
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For the naive, it can be easy to underestimate the danger. Even after seeing reports of fatalities, some backcountry users may rationalize that such tragedies are relatively rare and that getting caught in an avalanche won't happen to them. But that's a foolhardy outlook, particularly during an active avalanche cycle like this one.
Fortunately, there are more resources than ever to guide backcountry users. Organizations like the Utah Avalanche Center and Wasatch Backcountry Rescue host frequent avalanche awareness classes and workshops. Can't fit one of those events into your schedule? You can complete the free, online Know Before You Go backcountry safety program from the comfort of your own home.
Once they're ready to take on the backcountry, people should also arm themselves with information about current conditions, such as forecasts the Utah Avalanche Center and National Weather Service publish detailing the risk of slides in areas throughout the state.
Risks will always be present in the backcountry. But by taking the proper precautions, recreaters can stack the odds in their favor to ensure they'll be around to enjoy winters like this one for years to come.
Information about avalanche safety and current conditions is available at the Utah Avalanche Center's website, utahavalanchecenter.org.
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