The 2017 Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop was held this year for the first time at Snowbird. I think it was the best one yet. I pondered why the venue change, as it limited the amount of participants (the South Towne Expo Center had plenty of room for everyone). But I suppose the aesthetics of having a backcountry skiing event in the mountains was a driving factor. Luckily I pre-purchased my ticket because the event sold out. Nearly 1,000 members of the tribe gathered to learn, converse, and get a baseline of avalanche thinking before the coming winter.
But out of all the excellent presentations, a couple really stood out to me as not only being educational, but also striking to the core of what I believe about how to be safe from avalanches while backcountry skiing.
BIRTHDAY CHUTES AVALANCHE
First there was the always entertaining look-back video on the previous season. But immediately after, I was floored by Sam Kapacinskas’ presentation about the Birthday Chutes avalanche that happened last year. His terrifying account of being caught in this un-survivable avalanche (and surviving) made my palms sweat. By the end of it I wanted to give the guy a hug. Sam should not be alive based on the size of this monster. His emotional account of the incident showed how much the event shook him.
The big takeaway for me, though, is the importance of communication in the backcountry. This is especially true concerning 2-way radios. Sam’s exhausting effort to locate his friend (who he thought was buried) could have been avoided. Turns out the buddy witnessed the side from the ridge above, but they could not communicate because of a dead radio battery.
Sure, they had radios, but by the end of the day, they didn’t work. I have not carried radios into the backcountry at all. After this presentation, I learned the importance of communication. I will be buying 2-way radios before my next tour.
COASTAL SNOWPACK IN THE WASATCH MOUNTAINS
Another fascinating presentation came from Ty Falk. He dug into years of data to compare snowpack types in the Wasatch (Coastal, Intermountain, and Continental.) Last year the Wasatch had a coastal snowpack, which meant warmer temperatures and many rain events. But it also meant overall stable avalanche conditions and one of the best backcountry ski seasons in recent memory.
The big question: will climate change transform the Wasatch Mountains into a more coastal snowpack in the future?
After lunch, Sarah Carpenter from the American Avalanche Institute showed off her backcountry checklist. When going into avalanche terrain, which involves complicated decision-making, having a checklist can be the difference between life and death. With airline pilot checklists as inspiration, the backcountry checklist addresses the variety of factors one must track before even heading out the door. It also addresses how to look back at mistakes made that touring day while drinking beers back at the car.
The only bummer? Carpenter says the checklist will not be available for download for us all to use and implement into our backcountry routine. Her reasoning? It’s for trained professionals only. I thought this was a total cop-out and think all backcountry travelers can benefit from using a safety checklist. So why keep it to pros only?
FAST TIMES AND BIG LINES
I love skiing the La Sal Mountains near Moab. But the avalanche danger in this desert range is much higher and more complex than in the Wasatch. From having a Continental snowpack, to terrain that creates huge avalanches, the La Sals require backcountry skiers to be at the top of their game. But with the addition of the new Talking Mountain Yurts in the range, the amount of skier-caused avalanches has increased.
Eric Trenbeath, the UAC’s La Sal Mountains avalanche forecaster, gave an entertaining look at the amazing ski terrain there, punctuated by the consequences of not taking the steep terrain and finicky snowpack seriously.
THE DOGMA OF THE FORECAST
By far the most entertaining presentation came from Jimmy Tart. He’s a guide with Park City Powder Cats here Utah, as well as Ski Arpa in Chile. Tart is also a comedian. He made everyone at USAW laugh about a serious subject – why do people keep getting killed in Wasatch avalanches despite the unprecedented amount of snowpack, avalanche and weather info available at our fingertips every day?
Tart compares his time guiding in South America where there is zero snowpack information (so they get their own by digging pits) compared to back home in Utah where every data point we need to make informed decisions are on the internet every morning. It’s like magic. Yet people are still getting caught and killed in slides. While Tart has no answers, his thoughts on the subject gave me pause as well as a good belly laugh.
My takeaway? Do as the avalanche forecast says. Stay out of questionable terrain. Don’t second guess an expert avalanche forecaster’s conclusions when you’re about to jump onto a line that may possibly slide. Trust the data rather than your own eyes. Just because the slope looks good and didn’t slide after you hit it with the tip of your ski pole doesn’t mean it is safe. Trust in the avy forecast. Simple.
If you missed the 2017 Utah Snow & Avalanche Workshop, consider attending in 2018 and beyond. If you’re a backcountry skier, this is a perfect way to reset your brain to begin thinking about avalanches, terrain selection, group dynamics and more before your first ski tour of the season.
Plus there’s free beer at the end, which is worth the price of admission alone.