Unsung Heroes- Inside the Utah Avalanche Center


“As long as it snows and blows in Utah, there will be avalanches.”  I am not sure who said this, but their wisdom resonates louder than their words ever could.  The combination of epic Utah terrain and copious amounts of annual snowfall, coupled with the fact that there are over a million people with easy access to the mountains, makes Utah a beautiful but dangerous place.  Since 1958, there have been 100 avalanche related fatalities, with only a handful occurring within the ski-area boundaries.  The other 93% have occurred in the backcountry where little or no avalanche control work is performed.  This statistic serves as a grim reminder of the dynamic nature of the mountains and illustrates why Utah is tied for third (with Alaska) as the most deadly state when it comes to dealing with these snowy torrents.  Colorado and Montana are considered the two most deadly, respectively.

Enter the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center.  Started in 1980, The UAC was charged with developing daily avalanche forecasts and weather advisories for the mountains of Utah.  Armed with this forecast, travelers into the backcountry would have an idea of the dangers and could then make appropriate decisions.  However, during the early days, the forecast was mainly relayed through a phone recording and its reach was limited.  Although the enemy was better understood, the general public did not know how or when it was likely to strike. As time progressed, the UAC developed better forecasting techniques, and in 1986, the program came under the direction of seasoned avalanche professional Bruce Tremper.  A Montana native, Tremper cut his teeth ski racing during his youth and working with avalanche scientists Dr. John Montagne and Dr. Bob Brown.  “I had a particularly interesting experience while I was a lift mechanic at Bridger Bowl,” said Tremper, referring to an avalanche that swept him down a steep couloir and nearly buried him.  “After that near-miss, I figured I’d better get some real training.  Bruce soon graduated to the ranks of ski patrol and spent a great deal of his time hunting avalanches and studying their unique patterns.   The next few years brought more opportunities to explore the curious nature of snow and avalanche formation as he obtained a head position with the Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana.  “I told the management that I would need a variety of resources to do the job and that it could be costly.  A bit of a cheeky move, but it worked,” said Tremper.  Under his tutelage, the ski patrol learned a great deal of information about avalanches, and after his tenure, Bruce had grown the patrol from six people to sixteen.  Moving from Montana to Alaska in the early 80’s afforded Bruce the opportunity to examine a variety of different snow packs around the Anchorage area.  “It was exciting and educational to be able to travel a relatively short distance and be in a completely different type of snow.  From marine to continental, we skied it all,” said Tremper.

Current Conditions:

Tucked in a corner of the National Weather Service building near the airport, a forecaster sits in a small cubicle poring over snow profiles and observation data. This is the Utah Avalanche Center’s main office.  “When I first started, the room behind me was taken up by a huge computer that had only about 64K of memory.  It was loud and slow, but it helped us do our job,” said Tremper.  Now, Bruce sits in front of state-of-the-art machines that allow him to rapidly compile and analyze data to generate accurate and timely avalanche forecasts.  Starting at about three in the morning, forecasters arrive at the office to go over their notes from the prior day’s fieldwork and then use that information to develop a forecast for the day.  Coupled with data from the NWS, they can evaluate the effect of wind and snowfall to determine the avalanche danger.  Crowd sourcing, or skier observations, is also a fantastic tool used by the center to add further validity to its predictions.  By about seven o’clock, the forecasts are recorded on the phone lines and placed on the website.  “Reaching more people faster is a goal of the UAC,” notes Tremper.  According to Bruce, most people obtain their information from the website since it offers a great graphical interface and visual data to facilitate understanding.


Since 1986, the UAC has grown from a meager staff of three, to eight forecasters.  Each forecaster is responsible for a region of the state, with Bruce acting as a coordinator/director.  The A(valanche)-Team is an eclectic mix of individuals that all share a love for the great outdoors.  Evelyn Lees joined the UAC in 1989 and has been integral in the development of the program.  Drawing from her experiences as a meteorologist, Evelyn’s insight into weather patterns is vital to understanding the uncontrollable aspects of the job.  Drew Hardesty has been a part of the team since 1999, and is a forecaster for the Salt Lake region.  His tenure as a mountain guide for NOLS and Outward Bound gave him the confidence to travel safely in the backcountry and he has passed on his knowledge to countless others.  When not forecasting, Drew spends his summers as a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park.  His dedication to the job was instrumental in the successful rescue of the climbers stranded on The Grand this summer (Outdoor Utah Fall 2010).  Craig Gordon, the team’s energizer bunny, has done everything from ski patrol to heli-guide.  He is currently the sole forecaster for the western Uinta Mountains, an area known for its huge peaks and desolate canyons.  Since this terrain is so isolated, Craig accesses most areas by snowmobile.  His expertise in this arena also makes him an authority on safe snowmobile travel in the backcountry.  Brett Kobernik is the man behind the scenes at the UAC, and his “garage science” approach to forecasting has enabled the organization to develop some unique tools to assist in understanding the intricacies of avalanche formation.  He is also responsible for the center’s website maintenance. Toby Weed spends his time in the nether-regions of Logan, and also accesses much of his terrain by snowmobile.  Toby’s position has become increasingly important as more backcountry travelers enter the area.  Dave Medara is the UAC’s forecaster for the La Sal Mountains in the Moab region.  His time with the Utah Department of Transportation during the late 90’s provided him with a great deal of avalanche knowledge and his expertise is crucial to the safety of the growing number of backcountry riders in the southern reaches of the state. Grant Helgeson is the center’s newest member and he is responsible for the Manit-Skyline forecast.  Grant’s youthful energy and willingness to learn has made him a great acquisition.

Field Observations:

On a beautiful morning in early November, I met with Bruce Tremper to go for a tour of Alta’s Albion Basin.  Since the ski area was still closed, we booted up and skinned to the top of Catherine’s Pass.  Along the way, we dug a series of pits to get an understanding of how the snow pack was shaping up.  Keeping their hands and feet in the snow is perhaps the most important part of the avalanche forecaster’s job, as this is the only way to get an accurate picture of what is going on beneath the surface.  Through methodical techniques and observations, a forecaster can see a snapshot of slope stability.  On this particular day, Bruce and I ventured upward until we came upon one of his favorite test slopes.  Keeping up with this veteran as we ascended was difficult and his level of fitness shined through, despite it being his first day on snow this season.  Guess those backpacking trips through the Canadian Rockies during the summer paid off.  We chose a 30 degree Northwest-facing slope at around 9800 feet to dig our first pit.  After some quick excavation, we had dug an adequate sized pit to the ground and began our investigation.  “Being a forecaster is like being a natural detective.  You collect clues and build your case based upon what you discover,” said Tremper.  Looking at our pit wall, we could see the various levels of snow that had fallen since October, and we noted a thin sun-crust near the ground.  Above the crust were several consolidated strong layers with a few inches of fluffy snow on top.  Just below the crust we noticed some faceted snow, but decided it would be quick to heal.  “Good looking snow pack,” said Bruce.  These statements made me feel great, considering last year’s dismal start and subsequent avalanche deluge.  Continuing through the basin, we evaluated other slopes with hasty hand pits.  The uniformity through the layers put a smile on Bruce’s face as it reinforced his previous comments.  Reaching the ridgeline, we gazed over into Dry Fork and marveled at the glistening white slopes.  On the ridge we downed some water and a few snacks while talking about Utah’s rise as a skier destination and the proliferation of skiing equipment.  Soon after, we peeled our skins and began the descent, then it was all untracked powder and smiles back to the car.


Knowing Is Half the Battle:

Avalanche forecasters have the advantage of getting out and about in the backcountry and seeing firsthand how the danger is rising or falling.  However, the hoards of eager skiers in the valley often have busy schedules that prevent them from taking the time to slow down and see the changes for themselves.  Realizing the need for continued awareness, The Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, a non-profit organization aimed at raising money for public programs, was created.  Through initiatives like the Know Before You Go Program and the Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop, the FUAC serves as a primary educator to the public.  Started in 2004 by forecaster Craig Gordon, Know Before You Go began as a way to reach the youth.  With the number of young skiers caught and killed in avalanches over the past decade, the FUAC took it upon themselves to develop an educational program that could be presented as part of the curriculum in Utah schools.  The interactive presentations held in auditoriums around the state feature a short video depicting skiers/snowboarders and snowmobile riders triggering slides.  Coupled with emotional tutorials from survivors and rescuers, the video makes a powerful impact on audiences.  Following the video is a power-point presentation describing the dangers of avalanches, useful statistical data, and graphs to really drive the message home.  The presenter, an experienced avalanche professional, then fields questions and the audience is encouraged to share their backcountry stories.  “The program is pivotal to perpetuating the education of younger generations, and since its inception, we have reached 120,000 kids,” said Gordon.  The Utah Board of Education has also recognized the program and it is now part of the elective curriculum, the first of its kind in the country. In addition to high schools and colleges, the program is reaching adults who need a better understanding of the dangers lurking beyond the rope lines.

Born out of the same idea as Know Before You Go, The Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop (USAW) is aimed at bringing together avalanche professionals and members of the skiing public to share new information and promote awareness.  Another one of Craig Gordon’s projects, USAW was started in 2008 and has garnered increasing attention from the local and western mountain community.  Like a scaled-down version of the International Snow Science Workshop held every year around the world, USAW has been a key venue for presenters to deliver current ideas to the forefront of avalanche education. “The older generation of avalanche professionals have too much great information to just let slip through the cracks,” noted Gordon.  This year’s USAW held at The Depot in downtown Salt Lake City, was well attended and featured speakers from the Jackson Hole and Bridger Bowl ski patrols, as well as professionals from a variety of other organizations.  The gripping story of patrolman Mark “Big Wally” Wolling’s death during a control route in Jackson further illustrated the prevalent dangers that exist in the mountains, even in-bounds.  A few other close-call scenarios at Alta, Bridger, and Canada’s Boulder Mountain served as stark reminders to never underestimate the conditions or your beliefs in what may happen out there.

Avalanche scientist inspecting snow crystals

In addition to these programs, the UAC had partnered with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue to sponsor several free beacon-training parks around the state where riders can test their rescue skills.  Check out the Resources tab on www.utahavalanchecenter.org for locations.

Tomorrow’s Forecast:

As we start another winter in Utah, the importance of enjoying the beauty of the mountains and coming home alive should be on the top of everyone’s list.  The professionals at the UAC are hard at work updating their website and adding new features to keep the public abreast of avalanche conditions throughout the state.  For the avid visitor, you’ll notice an enhanced advisory page and more detailed menu tabs.  Along with the old favorites like the “danger rose”, current conditions, and avalanche activity, the forecasters have added daily threats to watch out for.  If you have never visited the website, I encourage you to make it your homepage for the remainder of the winter.  The forecasters have developed a unique way to convey the danger information and often include colorful humor that makes for an interesting and educational read.  You owe it to yourself and the ones you love to check the forecast before venturing into the backcountry.  Finally, it should be every snow enthusiast’s goal to take an avalanche training class.  The skills presented in these classes are vital to understanding the hazard and making critical choices that could save you or members of your party.  Classes are available throughout the winter and more info can be found on the UAC webpage under the Education tab.  Remember that keeping you on top is the UAC’s underlying goal and they depend on you to keep them on top of educating others by donating to the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center.  Have a great season and stay safe!


For all the goods, visit www.utahavalanchecenter.org and check out Bruce Tremper’s book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain.

Photos courtesy of Bruce Tremper

3 Responses to “Unsung Heroes- Inside the Utah Avalanche Center”

  1. Awesome story and very informative.

  2. This article is fasinating in detail about valuable,life-saving procedures for all back country skiers. A must read for all skiers in Montana, Colorado and Utah.

  3. Fascinating story. Interesting how much science and lore blend to make forecasting possible.

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