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Avalanche danger expected to spike in coming days, experts urge preparedness in UT back country

What first responders want you to know about avalanches
Posted at 5:51 PM, Feb 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-05 19:53:30-05

SALT LAKE CITY — With more snow in the forecast, Utah Avalanche Center and its partners are ready to assist in the air and on the ground, prepping helicopters and dogs for potential victim searches.

An assortment of avalanche gear covered tables inside of a building at the Department of Public Safety’s hanger Wednesday — just a table full of stuff, that could very well save your life.

“Avalanche avoidance, that is the big ticket,” said Craig Gordon, an avalanche forecaster with the Forest Service, Utah Avalanche Center.

“The way this all comes together is… an avalanche beacon leads to a probe, a probe then leads to a shovel, a shovel leads to my partner,” he said as he pointed out each piece of gear.

The gear represented standard equipment that anyone venturing into the backcountry should have, alongside a current avalanche forecast and an experienced partner.

“Even the most experience people can sometimes make mistakes in the backcountry,” Gordon warned.

Already this avalanche season, Department of Public Safety helicopters have been sent out twice. Last season, they responded to four avalanches — but, prior to that, they had not seen a fatal avalanche in almost three years.

“I think we, as human beings, we become complacent, we think, ‘Oh, there haven’t been any fatalities,’ and ‘BOOM’ we don’t think about the environment we’re going out to,” Hutchings continued.

Now, following a storm that brought light, dry snow to Northern Utah, they have concerns for what’s still ahead — a wet, dense snow hitting the same area come Wednesday night.

“Anytime you’re out in the backcountry you need to have the proper gear and equipment, training and knowledge,” Hutchings said. “One avalanche victim is one too many.”

While they urge, preparedness is key — if the snow comes down, crews are ready to help should a slide follow. From that point it’s a mix of air and land, first sending in helicopters to search for transceivers.

“We basically pull together our crew and go to the vicinity of where the accident has occurred,” said Hutchings.

When a slide is confirmed, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue is also contacted to put paws to the ground.

“They go through extensive training to become fully certified, it takes about a two season process for a dog to be able to test to a Level A, and it’s essentially a big game of hide-and-seek,” Wasatch Back Country Level A handler, Julia Edwards said as she gave commands to a golden labrador retriever named Piper.

“Depending on the depth of the burial, the wind and then the snow — AKA, how fast it will rise, we can have dogs be on an odor in 45-seconds,” Edwards continued.

Gordon said the helicopter and dogs are crucial resources when it comes to locating potential victims in a slide, still it doesn’t replace a well-informed person with the proper gear.

“Time is of the essence if you’re caught, carried and buried beneath the snow,” Gordon said. “So, even though these are amazing resources, these are the last people you want to see roll up to a scene because that means the accident that’s occurred has already gotten way out of hand.”

The latest avalanche forecast can be found on the Utah Avalanche Center’s website, HERE.