But Nooooo! The snow beside you was suddenly moving, the whole slope flowing down the hill like water. You heard a low dull rumble as the avalanche got closer, and you began swimming motions to stay on top—but which way was the top? You couldn’t see anything but a blinding cloud of white, you couldn’t tell which way was up as you tumbled, and now it had stopped. It was quiet and the snow packed around you was hard—hard as ice. You couldn’t claw it away; you couldn’t move. You felt powerful regret about going into the backcountry alone, about not wearing any rescue gear. Your arms were trapped by snow, you couldn’t reach your pocket to get your phone. You were helpless, with only the sound of your panting breath … and then panic.
There are many myths about avalanches. Bruce Tremper (pictured), of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, says, “Avalanche terrain is 35 to 45 degree slopes, which is a black diamond slope. And you have to worry if you’re underneath a steep slope. You can easily trigger an avalanche from the bottom. Most people have very little idea how dangerous avalanches are. They are almost always triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party. It’s usually the weight of a person on the snow that triggers the avalanche.”
He explains that nearly all avalanches happen in the backcountry; they hardly ever happen inside the boundaries of a resort because ski patrols create avalanches of loose snow in the morning, before the public arrives. The Utah Avalanche Center (UtahAvalancheCenter.org or updates at 888-999-4019) is a resource that can save your life if you go skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing or hiking in the wilderness outside a resort.
The Uinta mountains are usually a notch higher on the scale for avalanche danger. It doesn’t snow as much there, and the thinner the snowpack, the weaker the snow bond that holds it together. People think that lots of snow means lots of avalanches, and it’s actually just the opposite. It’s especially dangerous in the early season, when the snowpack is thin.” Avalanche injuries and fatalities have been steadily increasing since records started being kept in the 1950s. The last year with no avalanche fatality in Utah was 1983.
Victims are almost always those who know little or nothing about avalanches. They don’t carry basic rescue gear, they’ve never taken an avalanche class, and they don’t know how dangerous it is in the backcountry. Some obvious signs that a slope is ready to slide are other avalanches in the area. Even little “sluffs” should be taken as warnings. A major warning is when snow collapses. You may hear a “whomp,” and the snow may seem to collapse—not just under your feet, but all around. Another sign is a “crack” in the snow running across or diagonal the terrain. When you see those signs of instability, it means the terrain is dangerous to go into.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll have any control in an avalanche. “There’s not much you can do, they travel so fast. So the key question is, How do I avoid triggering an avalanche?” says Tremper.
A good way to become better educated is to take one of the frequent classes offered by the Utah Avalanche Center (UtahAvalancheCenter.org/education). Or check out the video “Know Before You Go,” which can be found on the site and on YouTube. Just remember Tremper’s warning before you blithely head out into the backcountry: “Don’t trust your life to (the backcountry) when you don’t know much about it. If you get caught and you don’t have any rescue gear and you’re completely buried, you’re going to die.”