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Rare On-The-Job Death For Avalanche Forecaster In Utah

Dale Atkins has been tracking hundreds of avalanche deaths for years but the fatality report that arrived from Utah Friday morning was especially shocking.

"It's way too close to home," says Atkins, the Colorado-based president of the . "It's mind's a slashing chill."

That's because the sixteenth avalanche victim in the United States this winter is Craig Patterson, 34, a seven-year veteran of avalanche forecasting for the Utah Department of Transportation. Investigators were still assessing the incident Friday but it appears Patterson was gauging snow conditions alone Thursday on a mountain slope known as Kessler Slabs above the Big Cottonwood Canyon highway outside Salt Lake City.

Colleagues concerned about his failure to return to his office called authorities and his body was spotted from a helicopter late Thursday. "A search found his body on the surface of the [avalanche] debris," reports Evelyn Lees of the

The highway carries thousands of skiers, ski industry workers and mountain homeowners and the steep slopes above it are prone to avalanches. Some reach the highway, which is sometimes closed after major snowstorms while highway workers literally bomb the slopes to release newly-fallen snow.

Patterson was part of a UDOT team of forecasters who track snow conditions and avalanche risk.

The Utah Avalanche Center rated the avalanche risk as moderate Friday morning, two levels on the danger scale below extreme, with the risk rising with higher temperatures during the day. The Wasatch Range that includes Big Cottonwood Canyon has had more than 40 inches of new snow in the last two weeks. Ski areas in the canyon are still open.

Atkins says Patterson possessed and deployed an avalanche air bag, a relatively new device designed to keep victims near the surface during snow slides . Air bags don't guarantee survival because snow slides can drag victims through rocks and trees, which can cause serious traumatic injuries. Patterson also had an AvaLung, which can provide oxygen when buried in snow.

"This is the first time a solo avalanche forecaster working alone has been killed," says Atkins. "Many (maybe even most) work this way. In 20 years of avalanche forecasting I almost always worked solo in the field."

On-the-job deaths are also rare. An American Avalanche Association database counts only two other American forecasters killed while at work on snow.

In 1992, U.S. Forest Service forecaster Mark Yates died in the La Sal Mountains near Moab, Utah. Four friends tagging along also died. Alaskan forecaster Mike O'Leary and a companion were caught in a slide near Cordova, Alaska, in 2008. O'Leary was killed.

Two Canadian forecasters died in the same slide in 1999 in British Columbia. They worked for the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Highways and, with Patterson, are the only highway department forecasters who died on the job in North America.

In an odd and tragic incident in Portage, Alaska, in 2004, U.S. Forest Service forecaster Jeff Nissman fell victim to an avalanche of snow and ice that slid from the roof of the building that housed his office.

In all, 749 people died in avalanches in the U.S. in the last 33 years. More than 90 percent were skiers, snowmobilers, and other recreationists.

Snowplow drivers and other highway workers have also been victims.

So far, the 2012-2013 season is the lowest for avalanche deaths in the last 20 years, according to Atkins' data.

Atkins says about 100 forecasters work in 18 avalanche control programs across the country.

"Certainly the best way to know about snow conditions on avalanche slopes is to visit avalanche-prone slopes," Atkins says. "There's always uncertainty and we try to mitigate the risks and uncertainty."

Avalanche forecasting is a science based on snow mechanics, weather conditions, snowfall history and degree of slope. But the experts know that snow slides can occur in unexpected circumstances.

"The danger line is never clearly marked on the snow," Atkins explains. "Sometimes we cross over and, most of the time, nothing serious happens. We have a close call."

Lees remembers Patterson as "a friend, avalanche educator, and integral part of Utah avalanche professionals trying to unravel the mysteries of snow and avalanches, and trying to keep people safe."

The Center is investigating the slide and promises an accident report.

In a statement, Utah governor Gary Herbert calls Patterson "a dedicated state employee who was admired and respected for his professionalism and expertise in making our canyons safer for countless Utahns."

Patterson leaves behind a wife and daughter.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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