Skip to main content

Cottonwood Heights Journal

Letter to a very stupid nephew

Feb 14, 2020 09:40AM ● By Harriet Wallis

Avalanches don't care who you are. They kill

[Author's note. I wrote this as a letter and emailed it to a college student nephew who's experiencing his first Utah winter with lots of snow and avalanches. He thinks he's infallible. Don't be this stupid]

Hi Ted,

The photos of your ski adventure into the backcountry are beautiful. The ski is blue, the snow is deep, and the mountain you climbed is extremely steep. You must be very proud of yourself.

And you are lucky to be alive. You acted stupidly.

Craig Gordon, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center says backcountry skiers who get caught in an avalanche have already made three bad decisions before they get swept away and killed. Gordon's examples include exactly the bad decisions you made.

  1. It's a beautiful day let's go.

  2. It's fresh snow. I want to ski it.

  3. We'll be okay because my friend is going.

Furthermore, if you'd checked the avalanche forecast – the very first thing you should have done – you would have learned that many backcountry areas were closed and others were under extreme avalanche danger warning. But you went anyhow.

Perhaps you equate an avalanche with a Disney World ride. Whoopee! I'm riding down an avalanche. It's not like that. Avalanches kill.

Avalanches snap off trees and rip up boulders. If you're caught in an avalanche you're beaten with broken tree trunks, tossed around with boulders, and thrown over cliffs and buried. The snow quickly sets like concrete. You are entombed.

If you haven't already died from blunt force trauma, you have 18 minutes to live before you die from asphyxiation from being sealed in an airless tomb. Your buddy had better know how to use his avalanche beacon, his probe and his shovel and use them furiously fast.

It won't do any good to call 911. Cell phones often don't work in the backcountry. He has to dig you out within 18 minutes. Just 18 minutes.

Avalanche burials often become body recoveries.

The moment you leave a ski area's in-bounds and go through a gate, you are totally, completely, absolutely on your own – even if your are only 10 feet out of bounds.

You did everything wrong. but you were lucky this time. Pull a stupid stunt like this again and you might be dead.

Being macho won't save your life. Take an avalanche course. Courses include field work where you dig snow pits, learn to calculate slope angles, and learn to use your avy beacon, probe and shovel. Then practice in one of the many avy beacon “parks” at ski resorts and trailheads.

Craig Gordon also says: Time your buddy while he practices in the beacon park. If he's slow finding the buried target beacon, he'll be slow finding you if you're buried – so don't go into the backcountry with him. You need to be quick and expert with your equipment.

Practice. Practice. Practice. You can't learn to drive a car in one lesson. You can't be proficient with your avy equipment in one lesson. Practice. Avalanches don't give you a second chance.

Check he Utah Avalanche Center website for avalanche forecasts and upcoming Avalanche classes.