By Maj. Dustin Jensen, Utah Army National GuardDecember 20, 2016
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Dec. 20, 2016) - Utah claims to have the greatest snow on Earth, and with that assertion comes some inherent risks. The high mountains and snow increase the avalanche danger, and each year the state experiences multiple fatalities. Fortunately, there are many things that can be done to mitigate the risks.
On Feb. 5, 2012, at about 5 p.m., an avalanche occurred west of Lost Creek Reservoir in Sevier County, Utah, located on the Fishlake National Forest. This was not the first avalanche in the area, but it had been about 10 years since there was a fatality. The snowmobilers were familiar with the area and had been riding all day. It was getting late so they decided to head home.
They were traveling west on the trail, which followed the approximate path of Forest Road 056, named Sweetwater Road. This was the trail the riders used earlier that day to get to the area. The riders were traveling single file along the road that traversed the north face of the slope when an avalanche broke loose.
The slide area was about a quarter-mile wide and 400 feet long. The first rider was about three-quarters of the way across the slope when he felt the snow give way underneath the snowmobile. He turned the snowmobile downhill and was able to outrun the avalanche to a flat below the slide area. The second rider was about halfway across the slope when he was knocked off the snowmobile by the avalanche. He was carried about 50 feet down the slope and buried under 4 feet of snow. The third and fourth riders were not on the slope when the avalanche hit.
The three riders turned their beacons to "search" and started looking for their buried friend. After about an hour of unsuccessfully searching, one of the riders rode to a location where he had cellphone service and called for the local search and rescue patrol. Soon after the rider returned, the group was able to spot a little piece of the trapped rider's snowmobile sticking out of the snow. The buried rider was found shortly thereafter, but it was too late.
The following morning, I had the opportunity to assist the Utah Avalanche Center with the investigation into this fatality. We rode to the avalanche site and were accompanied by a few members of the Sevier County Search and Rescue that were part of the recovery efforts the night before. The site was an area I had been to many times before, both on a snowmobile and during the summertime. The location was popular with snowmobilers because the steep, treeless slopes are great for climbing.
All four riders involved in the avalanche the day prior were familiar with the area. They had the proper protective equipment, to include avalanche beacons, in case disaster struck. The beacons give of a radio transmission that others can use to locate it. All beacons can both transmit and receive by switching modes. They will also give you a strength signal, letting you know whether you're getting closer or farther away from the lost rider.
A buried rider has about 15 minutes before they die from suffocation. That doesn't give rescuers much time. It can be even more challenging if the avalanche is large, so it's vital that you know how to use a beacon, probe and shovel. The local avalanche centers are a great place to find information and classes on how to use the equipment. They will also give you the avalanche forecast on the local conditions.
So, before you go into the backcountry skiing, snowmobiling or snowshoeing, ensure you have the proper equipment, know how to use it and understand the avalanche danger level. Knowing the conditions of the snow, wearing tracking beacons and protective equipment, and knowing how to use the beacons are a few things that lower the risk.
Avalanche Safety Tips - According to the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center, avalanches kill more people on national forests than any other natural hazard. The organization offers the following tips to help skiers, snowmobilers and snowshoers stay safe:
• Be responsible. Your safety and the safety of others around you is your primary responsibility. What you wear, where you go, the equipment you carry and how you conduct yourself is vitally important.
• Be avalanche savvy. Know the three conditions - slope, snowpack and trigger - present for an avalanche. Take a certified avalanche course. Find courses at Avalanche.org.
• Be aware. Know the avalanche danger/conditions where you will be recreating. Heed all warnings.
• Be prepared. Have at least these three safety items with you at all times and know how to use them. Everyone in your party should carry each of these items:
o Avalanche transceiver - Know the terrain and avoid dangerous conditions. If you are caught in an avalanche, use your avalanche transceiver to help others in your party find you.
o Avalanche probes - These collapsible poles are longer than ski poles and are the perfect tool to begin searching for someone buried under the snow.
o Shovel - Each person in your party should carry a shovel. Shovels can help you dig out others who may be caught in an avalanche, help determine snowpack conditions, assist in leveling out an area for a tent, or be used to melt snow for drinking water.
o Backpack - Your pack should hold all your rescue gear, food, water, dry clothing, first-aid kit and tools to take with you when you go into the backcountry.
o Partner - None of the above pieces of equipment will help you if you venture into the backcountry alone. Always bring a buddy.
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