While tourists flood the resorts for holiday getaways, there's a growing number of skiers and snowboarders ditching the lift lines, groomers, and amenities for the more secluded outdoor experience found only the backcountry. Once the realm of the most daring professional adventurers, backcountry skiing and snowboarding has become relatively accessible, especially here in Utah where the "Greatest Snow on Earth" buries the mountain ranges with enticing, fluffy powder right in our backyard. With the recent dumps, there's more than a few people itching for untracked pow, but it also means avalanche danger is up. Getting into the backcountry, of course, doesn't come without risks, particularly the pernicious threat of avalanches (they kill more people every year than any other natural event in Utah). Thankfully, the folks at the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) provide an invaluable tool to have fun and stay safe when tapping into mountain recreation.
If you're not familiar with the Utah Avalanche Center, it's a 501(c)(3) non-profit/Forest Service collaborative organization that works tirelessly to provide education and resources to winter backcountry travelers. "We've always known we were an important part of backcountry safety," says Paul Diegel, Executive Director of the UAC, "If fatalities kept pace with the increase in backcountry usage over the last 22 years, we'd be seeing 45 to 200 deaths per year. Instead it's about 3 to 4 deaths and the UAC is partially responsible. We're making backcountry safer and more predictable." The efforts of the UAC are concentrated on providing resources, including daily advisories, and educating the public since most backcountry accidents are caused by a lack of knowledge. And it's not just thrill-seeking skiers and snowboarders; avalanches can be a danger to someone walking their dog or shoveling a walkway. Anyone thinking about heading into the backcountry can easily find avalanche forecasts, advisories, and other resources by heading to the UAC website, allowing them to make an informed decision before they take off. (Here you can find daily advisories for the Uinta Mountains -- an undeveloped wilderness popular with cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and alpine skiers and snowboarders located just 16 miles east of Park City.) Even if you aren't into backcountry recreation, you're probably still reaping the benefits of their work because the UAC also collaborates with the local resorts, ski patrollers, and the Utah Department of Transportation to provide training and resources.
For anyone looking to get into the backcountry for recreational purposes, the first thing you should do is check out the UAC's free, one-hour avalanche safety coarse "Know Before You Go," or KBYG. This fast paced, engaging program focuses on showing the destructive power of avalanches, helping people understand when and how they happen, and how to avoid them while having fun in the mountains. KBYG is not overtly scientific or technical, but was created to be easily digested for anyone middle school age or older. By the time you're done you'll know exactly what gear and information you need to stay safe in the backcountry. This January, the UAC is hosting several Avalanche Awareness talks around the state and in Salt Lake City, including KBYG at 6:30 p.m. at Treasure Mountain Elementary School on Tuesday, January 10th, and many other events.
Even if you think you're a seasoned pro in the backcountry, it's important to keep up with training and practice with your avalanche safety gear frequently. This can mean grabbing your beacon, probe, shovel, and a few friends to practice search and rescue in a designated beacon practice area or heading out to a UAC event.
In addition, anyone looking to take their backcountry skills to the next level should keep White Pine Touring in mind. The adventure company also offers a variety of avalanche awareness courses through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. Keep shredding and stay safe out there!