Backcountry Awareness Important to Skier Safety

Backcountry Awareness Important to Skier Safety

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John Hollenhorst ReportingFor the latest avalanche advisory, follow the link at the top of this story or call 1-800-648-7433

Who's at fault in Utah's deadliest avalanche season in modern times? Our latest KSL-Deseret News poll suggests most people think the victims themselves are to blame.

The most recent death was last week. A recreationist was killed after he entered an out-of-bounds area from The Canyons ski resort.

Less than six percent in our poll said the resort is "most responsible" when a skier enters dangerous back-country. 86 percent say the skier himself is most responsible.

Ninety percent say the ski resorts "definitely" or "probably" are doing enough to protect skiers. Most experts say the biggest problem is uninformed people taking reckless chances. But deaths and lawsuits are putting pressure on resorts.

It used to be primarily expert cross-country skiers in the back-country. Now there are growing numbers of snowmobilers, snowshoers, snowboarders, and alpine skiers, some of whom access the back-country from ski-lifts, sometimes with deadly results.

When the huge avalanche roared last week, it was an echo for John Benson.

John Benson, Park City: “I just thought to myself, ‘not again.’ I just thought this is so tragic.”

Five years ago an avalanche killed John Benson's close friends in the back-country, not far from the 99-90 ski lift. Greg and Loren MacKay left behind a three-year-old orphan son. Until then, Benson shared the MacKay's enthusiasm for skiing and never thought much about safety.

John Benson: “I still seek to find the untracked powder and that virgin snow that powderhounds all look for.”

Now he believes The Canyons resort should do more to discourage patrons from going out of bounds. Unchanging warning signs aren't enough he says.

John Benson: “They get used to the signs, kinda like a school zone. You get used to going through the school zone. Unless there’s flashing lights you don’t really adhere to it too closely.”

A year after the MacKay's were killed, Sharon Reinfurt of New Hampshire died in the same area. Her family is pursuing a lawsuit. But Park City's mayor says recreationists themselves are usually to blame.

Dana Williams, Mayor of Park City: “I’ve never seen a sign that was more blatant than the one that is at The Canyons, ‘You Can Die!’ And people just kind of blow that off.”

His city just put up warning signs at most trailheads. A snow-shoer died in this canyon last year, not far from Main Street.

Mayor Dana Williams: “Public awareness is by far the most important factor.”

Some say the trend is clear: with more people putting themselves in jeopardy, there’s more pressure on the resorts to be aggressive about safety.”

The Avalanche Forecast Center is getting more aggressive too. This school year they started reaching out to young people, with presentations for schools and youth groups. In the future they may put daily avalanche advisories into the newspapers and on TV every day.

Bruce Tremper, Avalanche Forecast Center: “Well, about 90 percent that get killed in avalanches in Utah don’t call the avalanche advisory before they go out.”

And Governor Huntsman added his voice today to the push for avalanche awareness. He signed a proclamation designating Backcountry Awareness Week. It's to promote safety and publicize the Avalanche Forecast Center.

For the latest avalanche advisory, follow the link at the top of this story or call 1-800-648-7433

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