BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON — Craig Patterson, an avalanche forecaster and veteran outdoorsman who died in an avalanche Thursday, worked to keep others safe.
In addition to his work for the Utah Department of Transportation, Patterson taught avalanche education classes for Utah Mountain Adventures, company president Julie Faure said. His death, she said, has left those who knew him "devastated."
"He was a very intelligent, solidly grounded father, husband and professional," Faure said. "He was an incredible instructor. He knew his material very well. … He was committed to safety. He was committed to research. … He was a conservative person. He was not a risk taker."
Patterson, 34, was working in the Cardiff Fork area Thursday but didn't return home when expected, prompting his family to call UDOT around 7:30 p.m., police said. Crews located Patterson's vehicle, and a helicopter helped locate his body.
Patterson was already dead when he was reached by rescuers. His body was recovered by search and rescue teams overnight.
Faure said Patterson was prepared, carrying an airbag that will float above the snow and an AvaLung, a device that allows someone to breathe if caught in snow. She said he left behind a wife and a 6-year-old daughter.
"It's so tragic and so unexplainable," Faure said. "We really don't know a lot yet about how and why."
UDOT spokesman Adan Carrillo said Patterson was alone at the time of the avalanche, but the department is investigating whether he started the day working alone or had split off from other team members. Carrillo said it is not uncommon for forecasters to work alone, given their expertise and the expanse of the terrain they cover.
He said it was Patterson's airbag that helped the helicopter locate the man, as well as information from his fellow teammates. It was unclear if the avalanche beacon Patterson was carrying was working.
Liam Fitzgerald, supervisor of UDOT's highway avalanche safety program, said that while trained professionals are sometimes killed or injured by avalanches, Patterson's death was the first in UDOT's program. He said Patterson had been with UDOT for seven years, six of them forecasting in Provo Canyon. He had just started forecasting in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons in the fall.
"He was very positive guy, very considerate of his fellow workers," Fitzgerald said. "Smart, highly motivated, a hard worker. (He was) just a pleasure to be around. He was a very accomplished ski mountaineer and certainly someone who knew his way around in the mountains."
UDOT released a statement about Patterson's death, as did Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and those at the Utah Avalanche Center.
"No words to truly express our sorrow at the death of UDOT avalanche forecaster Craig Patterson yesterday — a friend, avalanche educator, and integral part of Utah avalanche professionals trying to unravel the mysteries of snow and avalanches, and working to keep people safe," the Utah Avalanche Center statement reads.
Staff members from the center planned to visit the accident site Friday in an effort to create an updated report with any additional details about the cause and size of the avalanche. Patterson's team members also planned to return to the area to try to determine the cause and size of the avalanche, Carillo said.
"Craig had worked with the department since 2006 and was a veteran backcountry skier," UDOT said in its statement. "He was out doing the job that he loved to do, making the canyon safer for everyone to enjoy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his loved ones as we continue to gather information about this terrible tragedy."
Herbert expressed his condolences and prayers for the man's family.
"By all accounts, he was a dedicated state employee who was admired and respected for his professionalism and expertise in making our canyons safer for countless Utahns," the governor said.
Contributing: Shara Park