Know Before You Go: Avalanche Safety

On Jan. 15, SUU Outdoors in partnership with the Utah Avalanche Center et al. presented a seminar concerning avalanche safety, prevention and response in the Sterling R. Church Auditorium located in the Sharwan Smith Student Center on campus.

The “Know Before You Go” seminar shed light on the potential occurrence of avalanches in snowy, high-elevation and possibly backcountry environments where help might be hours away.

Presenter and Coordinator of SUU Outdoors Levi Pendleton said the purpose of the program is to help educate winter outdoor enthusiasts of the dangers of avalanches to enable them to plan and prepare adequately for winter activities.

The presentation began with an informational video featuring the expertise and testimonies of professional winter athletes and avalanche safety personnel.

The audience learned about basic definitions, causes, and effects of avalanches including the most common and deadly form, dry slab avalanches.

Dry slab avalanches are triggered when the weaker underlying layer of a slope completely breaks away and rockets down the mountain side.

Almost all avalanches occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees, which makes correctly reading the grade and condition of a slope a potentially life-saving skill.

Additionally, five essential steps prepare outdoor enthusiasts for safe recreation regardless of the activity on the snowy mountainous terrain:

  • Get the gear-having the necessary equipment to perform a rescue
  • Get the training-knowing how to use rescue equipment
  • Get the forecast-obtain weather reports that indicate the probability of avalanches
  • Get the picture-obvious or observable signs of instability
  • Get out of harm’s way-if possible, getting out of the way of an avalanches path

Special rescue gear prevents the majority of deaths that occur from asphyxia due to being completely enclosed in snow. The odds of self-rescue are extremely unlikely, and 1-in-4 victims die from trauma and shock alone.

Most accidents happen outside resort boundaries in the backcountry. In fact, Nearly 12% of avalanche fatalities occur after resort boundary.

Though the hour-and-a-half seminar was instructive with a look into some of the rescue equipment, the program is only an introduction to avalanche safety.

Pendleton, a ski patroller for six seasons in the Wasatch Basin, said “[The program] is a good starting point, but it’s not necessarily an extensive course for training in avalanche safety.”

Further education is strongly encouraged, with emphasis that avalanches don’t discriminate based on activity. Even motorists in Utah’s Cottonwood Canyons –some of the most avalanche-prone areas in the United States– are subject to the raw winter forces.

UDOT has the annual task of avalanche mitigation and often resorts to controlled explosions to set off avalanches before a massive accumulation of snowfall creates too high a risk.

Additional resources to prepare for winter recreation include visiting to obtain forecasts and completing hands-on training in avalanche safety courses offered by various organizations.

A Backcountry 101 course will be taking place the weekend of Feb. 21-22, 2020 that will include some classroom instruction on campus and on-site learning in the mountains near Eagle Point, UT.

The course, taught by the Utah Avalanche Center, will provide further education and training in the use of rescue equipment and costs $150 dollars to apply. Registration help can be found at SUU Outdoors Basecamp and the course is available to the general public.

The seminar was the second hosted at SUU in the last two months and was attended by about 20 people, including community members in addition to SUU students.

Among those attending was the vice president of the latest iteration of SUU’s ski club, Drake Broussard.

Broussard, a freshmen Aviation Science major, is new to Utah, but was glad to know of the resources for enhanced avalanche training that would benefit him in his leadership role. 

“It was a phenomenal base layer of information to get people more aware of how prepared they need to be…I now have that understanding of what I didn’t know before and how much I should know more of.” 

Broussard’s takeaways from the seminar could be summed up in the title of the program, in gaining the understanding of what to “Know Before You Go.”

Story by: Reyce Knutson
Photos by: Reyce Knutson and  Johanna Dahlberg on Unsplash