In snow sports, expect the unexpected. Turning potentially disastrous situations into memorable and thrilling sports adventures requires awareness, training, and good instincts.
With skill and appropriate judgment we can come prepared to the mountains to ski, ride, climb, and snowshoe. Ever
changing winter conditions present a variety of situations making snow sports challenging. Toying with fate, we calculate risks based on our preparation and knowledge of each situation. The more informed and better prepared we are, the lower the risk; yet providence still plays a hand in our destiny. We can’t let our guard down. We must remain vigilant. And we need luck on our side.
Adrenalin junkies often place themselves at risk for the thrill and joy of the moment. Some take unwise and unnecessary risks. Others come unprepared or simply unaware of pending disasters. Rather than plan for these situations, many people prefer to hire a guide with local knowledge. Others rely on unofficial guides as group leaders to shepherd them. In search of adventure, they follow like flocks of sheep.
Adventure seekers are everywhere. They are especially prevalent in Utah, an adventure sports mecca. Utah is a vast outdoor playground for holiday travelers, thrill seekers, and adventure sports athletes. I fall into the latter category.
The Wasatch Mountains first drew my attention in the 1970’s, when I began making my Westward Journey in search of powder skiing. I fell captive to the majestic mountains and world-class ski resorts nestled above Salt Lake’s east rim and within the neighboring communities of Park City, Ogden, and Provo.
The allure of the mountains draws winter sports enthusiasts of all kinds. Within one hour of Salt Lake City there are 14 world-class resorts catering to alpine snow sports enthusiasts. In addition, there are miles of
trails for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. I enjoyed all three sports during my recent visit. Soldier Hallow, site of the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic biathlon and Nordic races, offers world-renowned cross-country skiing near Wasatch Mountain State Park. The Wasatch Mountain Range also provides countless opportunities for backcountry skiing and snowboarding off-piste. Climbers and thrill seekers pit themselves against frozen waterfalls like the majestic Great White Icicle in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
For years, I’ve returned to Utah to enjoy fresh powder, spring corn snow, and groomed corduroy runs. As a former ski instructor from Snowbird Mountain School in Little Cottonwood Canyon, I know conditions in the Wasatch Mountain Range vary widely. Each day brings forth a new set of challenges. For this reason, it’s advisable to come prepared and plan in accordance with daily conditions. Check recent weather forecasts, snow and avalanche reports, and mountain webcams.
This winter was unusual in terms of weather. It had unseasonably warm weather with relatively little snow compared to last winter. With the warm weather, less frequent snowfall, high winds and unstable snowpack; the avalanche danger was very high. This season’s avalanche danger was well publicized. Utah Avalanche Center provides warnings about avalanche danger and posts reports on recent occurrences. Unfortunately, some people did not heed these warnings. Others were simply unlucky.
Avalanche control is carefully managed by ski patrols within each ski resort. Ski patrols typically mark and blast high-risk areas located within resort boundaries. Their efforts, along with work crews that groom and prepare slopes for skiers, help reduce the risks. On occasion avalanches occur inbounds, but a vast majority occurs out of bounds in the backcountry. Ninety percent of all avalanches occur during snowstorms and are triggered by their victims or a group member.
Every day people venture onto the slopes and into the backcountry without consulting an avalanche advisory. Many come without adequate mountain rescue gear – transceiver, reflector, shovel, probe pole and airbag system. In or out of bounds, when skiing or snowboarding, it’s advisable to carry an emergency beacon and a communication device. At a minimum, wear a helmet and a rescue reflector.
Several times this winter when I had intended to ski at Alta and Snowbird, my plans changed due to bad weather. The canyon road was snow covered and temporarily closed. Interlodge restrictions were put in effect for avalanche control work.
One sunny day in late February, a friend and I were able to ski the “Bird.” As former mountain school ski instructors, we knew the resort terrain. We were able to ski off the groomed trails,
where avalanche patrol work had been done and emergency services and ski lifts were accessible. We had to be cautious in the cliff areas, shoots and bowls because of low snowpack and potentially unstable conditions.
Very near where we had been skiing just a few days earlier, an inbound avalanche was triggered by a snowboarder on upper Blackjack in Peruvian Ridge at Snowbird. This shows how fast conditions can change. A coordinated rescue effort between a chair lift supervisor who witnessed this incident and ski patrollers provided immediate aid to the victim. According to the UAC report, he survived the incident with injuries.
When skiing at The Canyons Resort, I warned my companions about avalanche danger. It was snowing and windy. To demonstrate my concern, I pointed to one area out of bounds, which appeared to be high risk. In my judgment that particular slope was prone to slide.
That same day, we observed a rescue helicopter make its way toward the danger zone. It was an area where an avalanche had been triggered by snowboarders riding off-piste. Although the area was accessible from The Canyons Resort Ninety-nine 90 chair lift, it was beyond the resort boundary. As often the case, a slab slide was triggered by the victim. It wasn’t until the next day we learned about his death. Utah Avalanche Center posted a report indicating that none of the snowboarders in the party were equipped with beacons or rescue gear. Our hearts go out to the victim and his family.
The first 15 minutes following an avalanche are critical for rescue. After that, the chances of survival diminish. Victims are subject to hypothermia, trauma, suffocation or asphyxiation. Learn more about avalanche rescue equipment and techniques through the Forest Service National Avalanche Center on their website.
If you plan to venture into the mountains for snow sport adventures, it would be wise to consider taking an avalanche awareness and training course. Courses and online tutorials are available through the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education.
Expect the unexpected. Come prepared.
© 2012 Anne Wall, All Rights Reserved.