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Utah Avalanche Center offers education courses for backcountry safety

avalanche course - Leslie Thatcher.jpg
Leslie Thatcher
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Participants in a recent avalanche rescue training course in Park City.

With a weak persistent layer underneath this winter’s voluminous snowpack, anyone headed into the backcountry needs to know not only how to navigate avalanche terrain, but how rescue someone in the event one happens.

On average, the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center offers 35 education classes every winter, and upwards of 700 people a year register for them.

Utah Avalanche Forecast Center educators, many of whom have spent years on ski patrol, recently taught an avalanche rescue course in Empire Canyon. The goals: Knowledge, safety and survival.

With this winter’s plentiful snow, falling on top of snow that fell in October, the consequences of venturing into the backcountry could be huge, as feet of snow can break away from the weak layer, leading to large and destructive avalanches.

Dave Coyne is the forecast center’s avalanche awareness coordinator. He says their classes range from an introduction to avalanches to on-snow avalanche rescue.

“Our big goal is to make sure that people have the tools and skills that they need to travel safely in the winter backcountry,” Coyne said. “And, you know, if things go wrong, they have the tools and skills they need to make things come out to a better outcome.”

Coyne says the classes attract a diverse crowd, from those who have never turned on an avalanche beacon to those who are experienced in the backcountry but want a refresher on how to use equipment or a tune-up to safely travel in the backcountry.

One who returns each year to train is Lindsay Charlton, a nurse by trade who spends a lot of time in the backcountry on her days off. Charlton considers herself lucky that she’s never been involved in an avalanche, but that’s exactly the reason why she wants to train using rescue equipment: a beacon, probe and shovel.

“It's a skill that I don't use when I go back country skiing, ideally,” Charlton said. “And so, I just don't trust myself to not whip it out once in a while in case something does happen. So, trying to do it in a safe environment in case it does happen.”

Erik Gabrielson is a recent transplant to Park City from the Midwest. He’s been on guided backcountry trips and says now that he’s living in the mountains, he wants to know how to safely get out on his own.

“So, I want to build my own skills, but also be responsible and really be someone that can add value to the party and be a good part of the crew,” Gabrielson said. “Right? -- that knows how to take care of everyone.”

After a day in the backcountry, Gabrielson says he feels he has the understanding and knowledge of an avalanche rescue. Now he says it’s a matter of practicing the skills he learned.

Here's a list of courses available the avalanche center is offering for the rest of the winter. Classes are offered for snow riders both human and machine powered in the mountains from Moab to Logan.

Tough but fair, Leslie is the woman most of Park City wakes up with every weekday morning. Leslie has been at KPCW since 1990 and her years at KPCW have given her depth and insight, guiding her as she asks local leaders and citizens the questions on everyone’s minds during the live interviews of the Local News Hour.