Record editorial: Backcountry safety is not to be taken lightly
Maybe you missed out on nabbing a reservation to get on the slopes at Park City Mountain Resort on a weekend powder day.
Perhaps you don’t want to stand in lift lines with others during the pandemic and are looking for a hill of fresh snow all to yourself.
Or you could be seeking a different kind of winter adventure, one that involves an engine rather than skis and poles.
So you head into the backcountry.
This winter, you won’t be alone in turning to the wide open terrain in Utah’s mountains. Avalanche experts are preparing for a record number of people to flock to the backcountry as the pandemic and safety restrictions at ski areas entice them to look beyond resort boundaries for their fill of winter thrills.
While there’s plenty of space for (extreme) social distancing, a large increase in backcountry usage this season is cause for alarm. Officials are concerned that among those venturing into the wilderness will be people who lack the basic avalanche safety skills that should be a prerequisite to strapping on a snowboard or clicking into skis in the backcountry.
What’s that? You’ve conquered every black-diamond run in Utah? Being an above-average skier or snowboarder isn’t enough, which is obvious when you consider that avalanches frequently travel 70 or more miles per hour. The only way to guarantee you don’t get caught in an avalanche is to avoid triggering one.
Fortunately, there’s an easy place to learn. The nonprofit Utah Avalanche Center, for one, offers a number of safety classes for backcountry users. And even people who’ve safely traversed the backcountry in the past can use a refresher course, or take the next step in their education.
Classes, though, are not enough. Becoming educated about avalanche safety gives people the best chance to avoid a slide, but it does not eliminate the risk. Carrying the proper equipment — a shovel, an avalanche beacon and an avalanche probe, at minimum — may just save your life if the worst-case scenario strikes.
The backcountry is endlessly alluring, especially this year. There’s plenty of adventure to be had in Utah’s mountains away from the crowds and the chairlifts. But the dangers are not to be taken lightly, as evidenced by the six avalanche fatalities that have occurred in the state since the start of 2019.
Heeding the guidance of experts will give us the best chance to avoid increasing that number this winter, even as more people than ever explore Utah’s backcountry.
Backcountry safety resources can be found at utahavalanchecenter.org, including avalanche forecasts and educational courses.
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