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Experts share tips for safely enjoying Utah's backcountry


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SALT LAKE CITY - People from all over the world come to Utah to experience the greatest snow on earth. But whether you're here for the slopes or the miles of beautiful backcountry, certain safety measures apply.

While it's easy to play it safe at Utah's ski resorts, the real danger comes when you head off the beaten path.

"Backcountry is any terrain where explosive avalanche control measures are not used," said avalanche forecaster Craig Gordon.

Gordon and his colleagues are hard at work every day monitoring the weather -- specifically wind, snowfall and temperatures. They get out early to inspect the terrain.


The day prior to issuing a forecast we're out on the snow. We're looking at the layering of the snowpack. We're out there being snow detectives trying to gather as much information as we can.

–Craig Gordon, avalanche forecaster


"The day prior to issuing a forecast we're out on the snow," Gordon said. "We're looking at the layering of the snowpack. We're out there being snow detectives trying to gather as much information as we can."

The story lies in the layers in the snowpack. The concern is the weak, sugary snow layers that form, and where they are buried.

"We put strong, heavy, wind-driven snow on top of this and we're going to see an elevated avalanche danger," said Gordon. "Things are going to start to get sketchy in the backcountry."

Sunny, south-facing slopes tend to get baked down -- consolidated layers which are a bit more stable. But the other side stays cold and shady, and that, Gordon says, is where most of the avalanche issues arise.

The Utah Avalanche Center is getting its message across with signs. Strong messages warn people they're entering an uncontrolled environment.

"If you're headed out to the backcountry, not only do you have to use the resources that are available to you and be prepared for your own self rescue, you've got to out with solid partners who've got your back," said Gordon.

Having the right equipment starts with a beacon.

"This allows me to find my friends," said Paul Diegel, executive director of the Friends of Utah Avalanche Center. "It allows my friends to find me. It sends out a radio signal."

A probe and shovel are the other key pieces of equipment used in a rescue. An Avalung is a breathing device that buys you time if buried.

"You don't die from lack of oxygen in the snow," said Diegel. "There's plenty of air in the snow. You die from carbon monoxide build up around your face."

Experts say with the right knowledge and equipment, any day can be enjoyed in the mountains as long as your terrain choices match the avalanche conditions.

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Jodi Saeland

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