It’s early winter in the Wasatch; the mountains are proudly donning their ever-thickening blankets of white featherlight fluff. But for those who aren’t already highly trained in avalanche awareness, it’s incredibly easy to forget that this sublime fluff can kill. The same substance you make snow-angels in can hit with the sudden speed of a freight train roaring down a mountain, burying whoever is standing or skiing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Serious backcountry skiers are increasingly aware that a lack of avalanche training is pure folly. But this is less obvious to folks who occasionally rent a pair of snowshoes for a weekend walk in the canyon or who tag along on a friend’s snowmobiling or sidecountry skiing adventure. They often perceive avalanches as a threat found in more “serious” or “extreme” mountain sports like backcountry ski touring, ice climbing, or mountaineering. But the even-more-serious truth is that avalanches can potentially be present anywhere there’s snow on a slope.
According to the Utah Avalanche Center, “Most of the avalanche fatalities in the U.S. and Canada occur to people who don’t know they are in avalanche danger and are unprepared to deal with an avalanche.”
Whether you’re a serious mountain regular, aspire to be one, or you simply like kicking around in the Cottonwood Canyons on occasion to get out of the inversion, it simply makes sense to be informed.
The Gear to Get
If you’re venturing anywhere that might possibly slide (including many popular snowshoe trails and snowmobile areas), you need a beacon, shovel, and probe at minimum. And you need a pack to carry them in. A basic backpack will do, or if you can afford it, an airbag pack is now recommended. (If you find yourself in an avalanche, you pull a ripcord to deploy a large airbag above your shoulders, which protects your head and helps keep you afloat).
This is a major investment to be sure. You can rent this equipment from the University of Utah’s Outdoor Recreation Center (cheap for the public, cheaper for students!) while you learn to use it and save up for your own equipment. Brands like Backcountry Access offer a great beginner’s package deal on a beacon, shovel, and probe.
The Instruction You Need
And, here are a few easy ways to arm thyself with a little preventative know-how (such as how to read the snow conditions and how to use the gear you’ve invested in). Our local Utah Avalanche Center is a mainstay for keeping our outdoor community safe; it and its allies offer an impressive range of education ranging from evening workshops to multi-day intensive courses.
- Read one of the preeminent books on snow safety. Bruce Tremper’s classic, “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain,” is approachable for the non-scientist yet highly informative in an interesting and memorable way. It sets you up with all the basics, for the low expenditure of $20 and a couple weekends spent burrowing into the book.
- Attend a one-hour “Know Before You Go” avalanche awareness talk by the Utah Avalanche Center. These are held all over Northern Utah, all winter long, at venues like schools and outdoor shops. And they’re free. It’s basically a no-brainer: show up, pull up a chair, learn some potentially life-saving information. While an hour isn’t nearly enough to cover everything you need to know in the backcountry, it’s a strong start and helps you understand why (and when) caution is key.
- Get focused with one of the Utah Avalanche Center’s two-day seminars fine-tuned for your sport, whether that means a Sled and Avalanche Riding Skills class for snowmobilers or a Backcountry 101 for Snowshoers. The Utah Avalanche Center even offers a Women’s Backcountry 101 class for those who’d like to keep it ladies-only.
- Commit a few days to a proper Avalanche 1 course. These are offered through through a variety of top-notch operations around Salt Lake and Park City, including White Pine Touring and the American Avalanche Institute. They usually involve two evenings of classroom time, then a full outdoor weekend in which you learn to apply your classroom knowledge to a real snowpack. Advanced Avalanche 2 courses are available as well if that suits your fancy the next year. More knowledge is always better.
- Sign up for regular refreshers like the annual Utah Snow & Avalanche Workshop put on by the Avalanche Center. It’s held every fall and always starts with a recap of the last year’s snowpack and accident overviews, then launches into some engaging presentations, videos, and tips from top experts. The afternoon wraps up with a raffle and beer mingle—the perfect chance to hit up a few of the presenters and forecasters with your lingering questions.
- Practice, practice, practice. This is the common baseline, no matter what level of avalanche education you aspire to. There are multiple beacon practice parks at Salt Lake’s resorts: you’ll find one at the Solitude, Snowbird, and Canyons resorts. Several beacons are pre-buried in the snow, ready for you to practice finding them. It’s the perfect way to brush up on your skills—and add in an element of friendly competition with friends along the way.
Of course, this is a very lightweight intro to the education and safety options out there. Learn as much as you can, then keep learning some more—and remember how much you don’t know. Swagger kills. But, if you’re unfettered by ego and empowered by skill, the mountains can be just as safe as they are beautiful.