Winter is an exhilarating but unforgiving season. For the experienced recreationist, the euphoria induced by speeding down the slopes, crossing forest or meadow snowfields on skies or snowshoes, or snowmobiling the backcountry may be tempered by awareness of what the ski industry calls, "inherent risks and dangers" - threats including hypothermia, frostbite, and avalanches. For some people, part of the "winter high" comes from awareness of those risks, adding an edge of excitement to compleiment exercise endorphins and appreciation of nature's beauty.
Winter users tend to be fairly savvy about hypothermia and frostbite, but an avalanche is a different story. Most skiers are at least theoretically aware that avalanches can be a threat, snowmobilers often less so, but ability to identify high-potential sites and conditions and choose terrain accordingly is another matter. Snow study remains a fascinating and inexact science.
It you are an outdoor enthusiast and planning an outing to one of Utah's many backcountry spots this weekend you may read or hear the following message, "We are currently calling the snowpack instability high throughout our region ... Backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended except by those parties experienced in safe avalanche terrain route selection."
Who are these experienced parties and is it really a major concern? Do you put off that unbelievable telemarking or snowmobiling day on a chance there's slope instability? It's fun, gorgeous, almost irresistible. Do you cancel a trip or select less exciting slopes on a mere supposition? Peer pressure says you'll probably go out anyway.
Two experienced men in avalanche awareness, Evan Stevens, with the Utah Avalanche Center in Salt Lake City and Eric Trenbreath, U.S. Forest Service employee with the Manti-La Sal Avalanche Center in Moab were in Price last weekend providing avalanche education to a group of local recreationalists.
Sponsored by the Carbon County Recreation Department, the workshop was coordinated by Steve Christensen, director, and consisted of two hours of classroom instruction and several hours of hands-on education in the mountains, up Huntington Canyon near Cleveland Lake.
Why worry about avalanches? Because they are deadly.
Consider the facts and statistics: While the class was being held on Saturday, four snowmobilers were trapped and killed near Missoula, Mont. But most people will say that accidents always happens to someone else in another state. This is just part of human denial of personal mortality.
Last winter, Utah topped the nation with the deaths of 12 winter-sport enthusiasts. Statistics about chances of survival once you're caught in a slide are extremely sobering. One of three people completely buried in avalanches die of trauma on the way down the mountain and 90 percent of the survivors will die of suffocation if they are not found and dug out within 45 minutes (most of the time within 15 minutes).
Avalanches kill more people in national forests than any other natural cause. The problem is growing and avalanche fatalities are rising as more people are attracted to winter recreation as toys improve mobility and as people press into new areas. Fortunately, whether or not you get caught in an avalanche is entirely up to you. Over 95 percent of avalanche victims are caught by a slide triggered by themselves or a member of their party.
The Manti-La Sal Avalanche Center (435-259-7155 or www.avalanche.org) exists to provide the information and tools that are required to travel safely in the mountains and minimize avalanche risk on any day of the winter. What do they do? Collect, analyze and interpret weather and snowpack data and distribute both analyzed and raw data to the public. Also they provide avalanche education to the public, private groups, search and rescue teams and other interested parties. They also support avalanche research and new development through data collection and intern training opportunities.
Whether you choose skis, snowboards, snowshoes, or snowmobiles, avalanches happen in exactly the same places where people like to recreate in the winter. The more information and education people know, the safer they are when it comes to avalanches.
The parts of the workshop Saturday most critical to survival is knowing how to operate an avalanche transceiver (beacon). Every backcountry visitor should carry one (and have it turned on). It will transmit your location if you're trapped. The transceiver can also be set to receive signals from a trapped skier or snowmobiler. Using one of these takes practice.
Be alert during periods of steady snowfall (that's when avalanches occur), and remember that slides with angles of 25 to 50 degrees are most likely to slide.
Cornices, or overhanging shelves of snow, can build up along ridges and can fall, triggering avalanches. A good tip for snowmobilers is when traveling along ridges, avoid the edges.
It is recommended that if your traveling through the backcountry to carry a shovel and collapsible poles to probe the snow for victims in case you need to help with a rescue. The shovel can also be used to dig a snow pit to evaluate the weather history of the snowpack where you are traveling. One of the most interesting aspects of the workshop was analyzing a snowdrift and evaluating the snow layers. (This time of the year the early snow is often deteriorated to simply ice crystals and can collapse very easily into literally nothing).
Don't backcountry ski, snowboard, snowshoe or snowmobile alone, but when traveling through potentially unstable terrain, spread out and cross slopes one at a time, keeping close watch for sliding or settling of the snow. A good reminder is that most avalanches start above the timberline, usually on slopes opposite the prevailing wind. Heavily forested slopes are less likely to slide. Watch for evidence of recent avalanches and look for snow that collapses or makes hollow sounds.
The most important thing to remember is check with your local mountain guides, forecasters and outdoor travelers for conditions and hazards. Only one in three avalanche victims buried without a beacon survives. But if you are caught in an avalanche, try to escape by grabbing a tree or rock and if you fall get rid of your skis or poles and "swim" on the slide to stay toward the surface. It is always helpful to carry topographical maps of the area and know the basic elements of first aid.
If nothing else remember these slogans, "Know Before You Go".