So far this winter, there have been 4 fatalities in Utah from the White Death, with several burials and other close calls. As backcountry travel from skiers, snowboarders, climbers, snowshoers and snowmobilers continues to rise- so too will avalanche incidents and burials.
Bruce Tremper has been the director of the Utah Avalanche Center since 1986. In that time he has seen numerous deaths and accidents, researched countless incidents and slides, and educated thousands on safe backcountry travel. Bruce coordinated the backcountry avalanche preparations for the 2002 Olympics and has been featured in many national and international television documentaries on avalanches including those produced by PBS, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel. A former ski racer, Bruce began his professional avalanche career at Bridger Bowl in Montana in 1977, was the director of avalanche control and Big Sky Ski Area, and then a backcountry avalanche forecaster for the Alaska Avalanche Center. The second edition of Bruce’s book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain was recently released (The Mountaineers Books 2008), and despite his busy schedule, was able to take the time to chat with us about backcountry travel and avalanche hazards in Utah.
Between the 1st and 2nd edition of the book, what are the biggest updates?
I would have to say there were significant updates to the rescue techniques and technology, especially with air bags and digging technique. There were important changes in the Human Factors section as well as the mechanics of slab failure and snow pit tests.
This year there have been 3 in-bounds avalanche deaths in the western US. Thoughts?
Everyone is scratching their heads over this and I don’t think there are any good answers. It had been 20 years since there was an inbounds avalanche fatality on an open run at a ski area in the U.S., and then there have been six in the past 3 years. Statistically, this may be just a random clustering of data. Time will tell. I can’t point to any factors that may be responsible. We humans often look for meaning in things that have no meaning. This may be a case of that but I just don’t know.
What is the biggest factor contributing to avalanche deaths?
Ignorance is by far the largest factor. About two thirds of fatalities are not even wearing beacons. These are the same proportions as drowning victims not wearing life jackets. So this is not unique to the avalanche business. Very few victims consulted the avalanche advisory before heading out. I have always said that if people would just get some very basic avalanche information, consult the avalanche report, use rescue equipment and cross slopes one at a time, then it would eliminate almost all of our avalanche fatalities. We really need to find more funding for outreach and education. Unfortunately, there is almost no money and avalanche fatalities have become epidemic.
Snowmobile assisted transportation is now allowing for more and greater penetration for assisted ski tours- do you see this gaining in popularity? Do you see any additional risks to this?
You see more and more “hybrid” recreation, using snowmobiles to access terrain. Yes, as more people get into more terrain, we will see more fatalities. But the practice itself is not dangerous.
Have you ever been buried?
I have been buried to my waist twice. I tell both stories in my book so I won’t repeat them here.
What area in the Wasatch consistently produces the biggest avalanches, or is considered the most dangerous avalanche area? Where do you see the most incidents of people getting caught in slides?
The largest avalanches are on Mt. Timpanogos because it is the largest mountain in northern Utah. We see the most avalanche incidents where there are the greatest interaction between people and avalanches, which tend to be near ski resorts.
What is the most important thing to do when involved in an incident or burial?
Asking what to do if you are caught in an avalanche is kind of like asking what do I do if I get in a car wreck. There really is not much you can do. Preparation, of course, is key. Take a class. Practice rescue techniques.
What is the most common mistake you see from people traveling in avalanche terrain?
The most common mistake, again, is plain ignorance. I see people all the time, especially near resorts or roads that don’t carry beacons don’t consult the advisory and have not educated themselves. Often, just knowing a few simple things can save someone’s life.
As the trend for backcountry travel in avalanche terrain has grown significantly over the years- do you see this trend reaching a plateau, or continuing to grow?
I’m afraid I don’t see any plateau coming. The U.S. population keeps increasing and more people are going into the mountains. I’m not worried about working myself out of a job any time soon.
Technology- Airbags, multiple victim features on beacons, the Avalung- what do you see for the progression of this technology, and how can it be prevented to leading to a false sense of security?
The modern rescue equipment is clearly better than the older rescue equipment. The avalanche air bags are, by far, the most significant technology to come along in my career. They are extremely effective. But they are also too heavy and expensive for most. They seem to be catching on like wildfire among snowmobilers. Yes, gizmo madness is always a problem (false sense of security). I recently read a post on a snowmobile forum from a snowmobiler who deployed his bag in an avalanche and survived. Then he complained that the rest of the day riding he felt “buck naked” without a full cartridge in his air bag pack as he rode other slopes. He said next time he will bring an extra cartridge. Beacons have not decreased avalanche fatalities and I doubt that air bags will either because of the risk homeostasis I describe in the book. The key is to use the technology but pretend that you don’t have it.
Equipment- has there been any avalanche data collected on what victims were using- IE releasable bindings?
The data is starting to come in that confirms that releasable bindings help. This is coming from Canada and Europe.
The trend for victims has changed in the last several years- it used to be that climbers and skiers were the most common victim of an avalanche, now it is snowmobilers. Do you see this trend staying the same? What has changed in the snowmobile community regarding avy education?
This is a book in itself. Snowmobilers and snowshoers are on the rise. It’s always the new kids on the block that represent the most dangerous user groups. It takes awhile for the community to realize there is an avalanche problem and educate themselves. Snowmobilers are becoming quite educated these days and I expect to see those numbers drop in future years.
Funding- What do you see the future holding for the funding of avalanche centers?
I have become quite jaded through my 30-year avalanche career about funding. I spend half my time fundraising–time that could be spent on forecasting and education. I have never understood why there is not better funding for avalanche forecasting and education but I have beat my head against the post for many years and nothing seems to change. I find myself counting the months before I can retire and let someone take over who is as idealistic as I used to be. I’m afraid the funding story probably does not have a happy ending.
Do you see the Government assuming the majority of the cost- and if they do, do you foresee a different set of criteria for forecasting avalanches?
I spend much of my time trying to find the answer to this question and I’m afraid I have no answers. Most avalanches centers beg, borrow and steal from wherever they can find funding and it usually ends up being some sort of mixture between various government entities and private fundraising.
Do you foresee any restrictions on travel in avalanche terrain by the Government?
No. It is public land. We all own it, which is the best deal we have ever gotten as Americans. We can go there any time we want. The flip side is that it can occasionally be dangerous and we have to be responsible.
Who pays for the Utah Avalanche Center? And what role do private donations pay in supporting the UAC?
We have many funding partners including the Forest Service, the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, grants and private fundraising. Private money is very important and we would have a hard time operating without it.
For more information on the Utah Avalanche Center, current advisories and conditions, and to make a donation, please go to www.utahavalanchecenter.org. You can also subscribe to receive the daily avalanche forecast via e-mail.