The Perils of Utah Backcountry

Story by: Elizabeth Briggs

It is the moment that every skier dreads, the moment when the mountain abruptly becomes alive. Not only is Utah famous for having “the greatest snow on earth,” but also for its frequent and dangerous avalanches.

The recent death of professional skier Jamie Pierre, who died when he triggered an avalanche while skiing at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, is an example of Utah’s dangerous terrain.

“ I filmed with Pierre, and this is devastating,” said Todd Ligare, a professional big mountain skier for Teton Gravity Research (TGR). “ There were a lot of weird circumstances about that day that could have been avoided, all of the signs were there. I think that it is a reminder that familiarity is a track, it is a comfort level that leads skiers to make questionable decisions” said Ligare.

Tony Daffern, author of, “Backcountry Avalanche Safety: Skiers, Climbers, Boarders, Snowshoers,” said, “…(avalanches) catch and very often kill the unwary who literally trigger their own destiny when they venture onto unsafe snow slopes in a moment of inattention or ignorance.”

With more people venturing into the backcountry annually, the amount of deaths inflicted by avalanches has increased exponentially. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, in the last five years alone, avalanches killed 27 people in Utah.

With Pierre’s passing, it is a reminder that these deaths do not account for just uneducated skiers. Even experienced professional skiers make mistakes and with lives on the line, it is important to be avalanche educated.

In a fifteen-minute online tutorial, the Utah Avalanche Center has introduced a minimal education program titled, “Know Before You Go.” Going over the basics of avalanche safety, the program suggests calling the avalanche report center for regular avalanche advisories. Secondly, check the terrain for recent avalanches; the best clues for avalanches are other avalanches. Stay off of collapsing and cracking snow on steep slopes, these sounds are cues that the snow is extremely unstable. Lastly recall the recent weather, avalanches happen with rapid changes such as wind, warming, melting, new snow and rain.

Bruce Temper, the director for the Utah Avalanche Center says that when a slide occurs “ try heading straight down the hill to build up speed, then angle off the side of the moving slab.”

“ If you speak to experienced professionals, they will tell you go into lines with options and knowing that it could slide. Always have an alternative line planned because if danger arises, your pre-thoughts will subconsciously surface and you have a greater chance of making it out alive, “ said Ligare who suggests to always ski with someone who has more knowledge about the backcountry and more experience to ensure safety.

So this holiday season, if plans of adventuring into the backcountry are in the forecast, take the time to get avalanche educated. Courses are available year round with the most recent being Friday, December 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm through Utah Mountain Adventures (801-550-3986) in Salt Lake City. For Christmas ask for useful gifts such as a beacon, shovel, probe, and most importantly education so as not to become another avalanche statistic.