SALT LAKE CITY — Craig Gordon understands the itch to try out the backcountry slopes during the holidays.
"People are going to have a little free time, and people like to recreate in the mountains with their families," said Gordon, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center. "Also, there's a high stoke factor earlier in the season. People are psyched to get out."
But Gordon also knows well the tremendous risks associated with rushing out with newly gifted skis, snowboards or snowmobiles and venturing into Utah's mountains without a plan or the proper equipment.
The mountain snow "does not feel our same level of enthusiasm," he said.
On average, four Utahns die each year in avalanches.
"The most dangerous time is early season, as we're starting to develop the winter snowpack, and it's most dangerous because we tend to have weak layers of snow near the ground that we can affect," Gordon said.
Two men came face-to-face with that danger on Dec. 19 when they triggered a "remarkably huge" avalanche while skiing in the Birthday Chutes area of White Pine Canyon in Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to Gordon.
"These two gentlemen are extremely lucky to be alive," he said.
The skiers were separated during the massive slide, and each called to report that the other might have been buried, according to Unified police. A written report from the Utah Avalanche Center said one man who had initially been buried up to his knees looked for signs of his friend in the snow with an avalanche beacon.
His friend ended up staying on a ridge for about 90 minutes because of what he believed to be unsafe condition on the slopes. Eventually, he made his way down the mountain.
"It wasn't until reaching the parking lot and talking with search and rescue personnel that he discovered his partner was alive," the Utah Avalanche Center report states.
Human-triggered avalanches of similar magnitude frequently turn fatal, Gordon said. He urged anyone thinking about spending time in the mountains during the holiday season to use all recommended precautions — and never to forget checking the Utah Avalanche Center's advisories in advance.
"No matter how people recreate on the slope … we encourage everybody to be armed with the latest avalanche advisory" to avoid high-risk areas, he said.
According to national data maintained by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there has been an average of 27 avalanche fatalities per year across the United States the past 10 winters. Utah has averaged four such fatalities per year since the early 1950s, according to Gordon.
Would-be backcountry visitors are asked to go to www.utahavalanchecenter.org, where the nonprofit agency, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, maintains up-to-date forecasts, advisories and danger ratings.
Despite the close call in Little Cottonwood Canyon, this winter's avalanche conditions are considered much less potent than what Utah experienced last year, when two people were killed in avalanches statewide. No fatalities have been reported so far this winter.
"That prolonged dry autumn … was really a good thing as far as the backcountry snowpack is concerned," Gordon said. "We (had) kind of a late start to the winter, but that late start actually helped us out. That is the perfect scenario for building a stable snowpack."
By contrast, "weak and sugary" snowfall, followed by heavy doses of wet snow, created a large amount of snowpack instability last year, according to Gordon.
Typically, people most at risk are those who have little experience in high-risk zones, who are unfamiliar with the local terrain, and who go to the backcountry alone, he said.
"Go out with experienced partners. Those are going to be the people who are going to help save you," he said. "It is mostly inexperienced people (who trigger and are killed in slides). It is anybody who's sort of new to the game. … People who have many experience are less apt to be caught and killed in avalanches."
Gordon noted a quarter of victims killed by avalanches die from the impact of the slide itself, not from suffocation under the snow.
"One (misconception is) that you can outrun a slide, because avalanches accelerate very quickly," he said. "They usually knock us off our feet, our board, our sled, our skis. It is usually (the case that) we are off for a very terrifying ride down the mountain."
Advances in avalanche safety equipment are a welcome development to backcountry experts, Gordon said, but even the most conscientious recreators who prepare themselves with a beacon, shovel, probe and airbags can be killed in a slide if they don't take avalanche warning advisories seriously.
"We want to avoid the accident altogether," he said. "The best planned rescue can have lots of complications. If somebody is buried under the snow, you've got 15 minutes to save someone's life."
Still, lifesaving equipment is critical in an emergency, Gordon said. He recommended backcountry visitors should bring along an avalanche beacon, shovel and a probe at a "basic minimum." Rescue experts recommend the beacon be used to identify the approximate location of the victim, at which point a probe can help pinpoint the precise position of their body before shoveling begins.
"Avalanche snow sets up like concrete in just a second or two," Gordon said. "You can't move your little finger, (let alone) pop up out of this thing."