SALT LAKE CITY — When Craig Gordon first moved to Salt Lake City 35 years ago, the backcountry skiing community was tiny.
“You could almost recognize every face in the backcountry,” said the New Jersey native-turned-forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center.
Now, Gordon has to navigate crowded trailheads and large groups of skiers when he goes into the Central Wasatch backcountry.
“The backcountry is being loved to death right now,” he said. “The bad news is we are still seeing groups go out either without avalanche rescue gear or with incomplete sets of rescue gear.”
Heading into the backcountry without the proper avalanche rescue gear — an avalanche transceiver to find someone buried, a probe to pinpoint where they are and a shovel to dig them out— is like leaving the house without your wallet, phone and keys. Except the ramifications can be deadly.
And as more people move to the Wasatch Front, more inexperienced skiers go into the backcountry.
Gordon stressed that avalanche gear is only one part of the overall picture — getting the proper education, having a reliable partner, being able to read and understand the avalanche forecast and choosing safe terrain are crucial to staying safe in the backcountry.
“Get an avalanche class underneath your belt,” Gordon said. “That’s paramount.”
Since last winter there have been six avalanche deaths in Utah — one skier, one snowboarder and four snowmobilers — where the victim or someone in their party didn’t have essential avalanche gear, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
In December, just 10 days before Christmas, Matt Tauszik left the ski area boundary at Park City Mountain Resort, triggered an avalanche and was buried. Snowboarding alone and with no rescue gear, Tauszik was pronounced dead later that day.
Julia Edwards, with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, said instances where people leave the resort boundary and get into trouble — whether their equipment malfunctions, they get injured or they trigger an avalanche — are increasing.
“People do not pay attention to the fact that a rope line means the ski resort ends,” she said. “They leave a ski resort where (avalanche) mitigation is performed, where there are ski patrol resources to rescue and help, and then enter the backcountry and expect that same level of service and support.”
Edwards said when you leave the ski resort, you’re on your own.
In four of the five other avalanche fatalities, either the victim or their partner were not equipped with an avalanche transceiver. In the fifth fatality, which occurred in the western Uinta Mountains, the victim’s partner did not have a probe.
After such fatalities, the Utah Avalanche Center emphasizes the importance of using tragedies as a learning opportunity while not pointing fingers at the victims.
On Monday, as a massive storm blanketed the Salt Lake Valley in snow, the Utah Avalanche Center issued a special warning for benches and steep terrain in the valley.
“The avalanche danger will affect those typically unaware of the danger,” the warning read.
According to Gordon, even if you’re simply headed into the foothills with your snowshoes after a storm, you need to be informed and educated on how to avoid avalanches.
“Just some rudimentary knowledge and understanding of staying off of and out from under steep slopes, staying away from wind-drifted snow,” he said. “That’s the difference between having a great family outing and having a potentially dangerous situation.”