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Tom Kelly: Safety on the ridgeline

Tom Kelly, left, and avalanche forecaster Craig Gordon ski the backcountry near Empire Pass.
Photo by Tom Kelly

How to Get Educated

Utah Avalanche Center, avalanche safety forecasts and education: utahavalanchecenter.org. Know Before You Go, basic avalanche awareness: kbyg.org.

It was a bluebird morning with temps pushing into the low 40s as avalanche forecaster Craig Gorden and I skinned up the ice-covered Guardsman Road towards Empire Pass. What a glorious day! Well, maybe too glorious for early December. And while we had no illusions of Utah powder stashes, the backcountry was still beckoning.

Over the past few years, more skiers are heading into Utah’s backcountry from the high Uintas to the Park City ridgeline and on to the Cottonwoods. Sales of backcountry gear have more than doubled in the last few years — and that was before the pandemic hit. It raises the question: Just how prepared is everyone to venture in the great unknown?

This is Avalanche Awareness Week in Utah. A weeklong series of online avalanche safety education from the Utah Avalanche Center has attracted huge engagement. That’s the good news. But is the message reaching everyone who will be skiing on the ridgelines above and around us this winter?



We tracked through a grove of trees to take a more direct line up to the Empire Pass ridgeline. Our skins grabbed onto the dry, powdery snow in the woods as we navigated scrub brush with every stride. But it was a pleasant change from the road. Craig evaluated the safety, looked at slope angle and facing direction. As we broke into the clear, he pushed his pole down into the snow to check its depth. “Wow, only a foot of snow in early December,” he exclaimed.

We took a break. The surface was a layer of two to three inches of sugary, faceted snowflakes that fell a week ago. It was sitting atop a very weak layer of snow left from a month ago. There was little adherence between the crystals. While today’s danger level was low, Gordon speculated what could happen if a foot of new snow were to fall atop this weak layer in another week. That could spell real danger.



He dug a tiny foot-deep pit with his hands to show the layering and the lack of binding between the snow crystals. “This snow on the top is actually pretty skiable,” he said. “The biggest danger today is the lack of ground cover. If you see a mound in the snow, you can be sure that’s something underneath.”

Craig Gordon is a well-known face of avalanche safety in the Wasatch — you’ve seen him on Fox 13 and Park City TV. When he talks, people listen.

He grew up as a surfer on the shores of New Jersey (he pointed out how incredible early-fall hurricane surfing can be) and skiing at Vernon Valley. That changed when he took a high school trip to Utah. And he’s never looked back.

“I remember as a teen getting off the old Collins lift at Alta and looking over to Ballroom. We had had a big dump of snow and the patrol was dropping explosives then skiing down the powder,” he recalled. He was so enthralled that he sent his best friend off to ski. He just stood there transfixed. “I knew from that very minute that I wanted to be a patroller.”

Under the guise of college, he moved to Utah, finding a patrol job at Brighton in the mid-’80s. But his vision was to work at Utah Avalanche Center, where he’s been for two decades. His work as a forecaster and the media voice of avalanche safety has brought the message to thousands of backcountry skiers.

He has a fascinating philosophy on avalanche safety. While snow science is vital for forecasters, Gordon feels that a lighter approach to consumers will help them better understand what they need to know.

“I can have a rudimentary understanding of how snow works and stay alive for a lifetime in the backcountry,” he says. “I can get information off the avalanche center’s website and match the avalanche hazard with my terrain choices.”

“Our product is to educate and save lives,” he added. “The delivery has got to be informative and engaging and entertaining.”

Gordon has long been an advocate for simplifying education to reach more people. When three men were killed at the base of Mount Timpanogos during Christmas break in 2003, he advocated for basic awareness education in schools. He led an initiative that resulted in the nationally acclaimed Know Before You Go (kbyg.org) program that is now the gold standard for introductory avalanche awareness training.

As a forecaster, he spends most of his days in the field. Sometimes it’s not pleasant. He still tears up talking about a 2019 snowmobile fatality near Coalville. A day after the accident, he went to the site just to research the avalanche, encountering other members of the party who had also returned. He conducted an emotional interview with a survivor who lost his best friend.

And he recalled the death of a snowboarder in Dutch Draw, just outside the backcountry gate atop the 9990 lift on the Canyons side of Park City Mountain Resort a year ago this month. As a forecaster, it gets personal very quickly when you think about the impact it can have on families.

The view atop Empire Pass is stunning, looking down on Bonanza Flat to the south or the Park City “skyline” to the north. We plotted a course across the contour to a spot over an open bowl. It wasn’t huge, but the top layer would provide a decent platform for a dozen turns down to the woods.

Craig went first, quickly linking a perfect series of staccato telemark turns (he hasn’t skied in a fixed heel in over 30 years). I followed, maybe not quite as cleanly. But I had just as much fun.

The backcountry is his life. And he knows how to enjoy it. Everything comes as second nature — including his knowledge of safety.

In 2019, 11 skiers or snowboarders were killed by avalanches — including one snowboarder fatality in Park City.

“If you’ve ever been around a moving body of water, a river, a stream and ocean, you know very quickly who the boss is,” said Gordon. “Snow is a very forgiving medium. All is good … until it isn’t.”

Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.


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