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Out in Utah’s spring snow? Be mindful of the backcountry avalanche danger

Pole Canyon, avalanche, courtesy Utah County Sheriff, March 28, 2023
Courtesy Utah County Sheriff's Office
An avalanche bowl in Pole Canyon just north of Cedar Fort in Utah County, March 28, 2023. Two snowmobilers were caught in an avalanche in the area the day before.

Heightened avalanche danger doesn't mean you have to steer clear of Utah's mountains. But you do need to be mindful of the conditions and assess whether or not it's worth the risk.

"Avalanches occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees,” said Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Nikki Champion. “That includes you being below slopes steeper than 30 degrees. So if you're heading into the backcountry and you know what type of terrain you're managing or traveling on, you can spend every single day in the backcountry."

People should still take additional precautions, Champion said, like packing the right gear including an avalanche beacon, shovel and a probe – and the know-how to use the equipment.

Even if you've checked the forecast, have the appropriate gear and are familiar with the mountain terrain you're on – there is still a chance you can find yourself in the midst of fast-moving snow.

Two snowmobilers riding in the Oquirrh Mountains on the border of Utah and Tooele counties were caught in an avalanche on March 27, 2023. One of whom, a 38-year-old man, died after being caught and buried in 22 feet of snow despite being found with an avalanche transceiver and a probe.

Utah County Sheriff Sgt. Spencer Cannon said search and rescue crews had to be deliberate in their approach to find the buried victim due to the nature of the area and the risk of more avalanches. While the outcome wasn't what crews had hoped for, he said the gear used by the deceased man and his brother was instrumental in allowing search and rescue to find his body faster.

If you are caught in a slide, Champion said the first thing to do is yell for help. Then lose anything that could drag you further into the snow. If you are on skis, for example, "you don't want to wear wrist straps [on your poles] when you're traveling in the backcountry because that could drag you down or just cause more damage to [your] shoulders."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes the recommendation to point your feet downhill so that your lower body, not your head, takes most of the impact. Another way of protecting your head is simply rolling yourself into a tight ball.

Avalanche experts also encourage people to swim or backstroke to stay above the fast-moving snow and keep their airways clear of snow.

"The survival rate is significantly higher if somebody's airway is cleared or they are recovered within 15 minutes. So that's the kind of timeframe that we aim for,” Champion said. “That's a lot of moving parts to happen really, really fast. And that's why knowing your gear, practicing with your gear, that training is essential."

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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