The World’s Biggest Backcountry Party

On September 13 the tent will once again be raised in the Black Diamond Equipment parking lot to celebrate the 25thedition of the Best Party in Utah:  the Utah Avalanche Center’s annual Fall Fundraiser.  From its humble beginnings in a house due to a tragic event to a serious hoedown with over a thousand people, the party has a rich history.

The Utah Avalanche Center has been an integral part of the backcountry and resort ski/snowboard community in Utah since the late 70’s, and was almost exclusively funded by the National US Forest Service.  However, two events in 1993 made the local avalanche community realize that the UAC needed extra support.

Black Diamond Equipment had recently moved to Salt Lake and one of its fresh new employees was an enthusiastic young skier named Roman Latta.  On a late season powder day Roman went up to ski Wolverine Bowl with fellow Black Diamond employee Andrew McLean and others, and after Andrew and his wife had dropped down one of the couloirs without incident Roman decided to jump in. The chute slid, and when the debris hit the main bowl the entire bowl ripped, and Roman was deeply buried. Despite quick and heroic efforts by his partners and a medical team that had quickly flown in, Roman died of his injuries a few days later.

Later that summer the Forest Service announced that they were going to cut the already-meager budget for the UAC dramatically, and people realized that the future of the UAC was in jeopardy.  This news rocked the community, and it was particularly acute for Mary Lee Latta, Roman’s mother, who was determined to make the effort to keep up the education that the UAC provided.  Mary Lee’s brother is former Salt Lake Mayor and outdoor luminary Ted Wilson, and they decided to have a party at Ted’s house to raise some funds to make up for the shortfall.  About 50 people crowded into Ted’s home, which they deemed a resounding success. Additionally, a non-profit called the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center was formed by Wendy Ziegler and others to process non-governmental funds for the UAC, and the center seemed destined for survival.

Black Diamond Equipment had recently moved to snowy Utah from sunny SoCal, and the reality of losing an employee to an avalanche shook them hard.  One of the first people that Black Diamond founder and president Peter Metcalf met in Utah was Ted Wilson, and once Peter heard about the party at Ted’s house he offered up Black Diamond’s quirky Swiss Village headquarters as a venue the following year.  “We had way more space than we needed,” remembers Peter.  “And once we got to Salt Lake we realized that there was no central meeting place for the community.  Since we always perceived ourselves as indistinguishable from our sports and the community, it was only natural to have a party at our HQ.”  It rained at the first BD-sponsored event, but because there were only 80 people there, the entire affair took place under the eaves of the building.  There was a silent auction for BD gear, pieces from local artists, and restaurant gift certificates, etc. in the clock tower, and 12 kegs were donated by the then-fledgling Uinta Brewing, whose founder Will Hamill did the bartending.

As the annual party grew, so to did Black Diamond’s commitment to it.  Colleen Graham-Nipkow was a jack of all trades within Black Diamond, and the company not only allowed Colleen to devote between 20 and 50 percent of her time all summer to organizing the party, but also donated the time of the other employees who helped set up and work the party.  For many years, all the Utah Avalanche Center had to do was show up.  In recent years it has become more of a partnership between BD and the UAC, which former UAC Executive Director Paul Diegel says “gave us the opportunity to tighten our relationship with BD and allowed each of us to draw on our contacts and resources to create a bigger and better party.”    As the party grew, so too did Uinta Brewing’s commitment, and this year (also their 25th) they’ll be donating 42 kegs and 80-90 cases of canned beer.  Will is no longer the president but is still on the board, but Uinta needs no nostalgic prodding from him; the UAC party is still an important part of Uinta’s community outreach.

Entertainment has always been an integral part of the party, with live music an annual staple.  One year Colleen had gone to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and saw a relatively unknown band called The String Cheese Incident that tore the place down, and as it turns out they were skiers and keen to support the cause so they came and played for the UAC party.  Their performance at Telluride, however, had apparently caused enough of a stir that over the summer they got a lot of notoriety, so by the time of the UAC party there were hundreds of fans that weren’t necessarily skiers but came simply to see the band.  The larger crowd and the noise elicited complaints from the neighbors and – always the sign of a great party – the police came around.  As Peter puts it:  “The cops showed up just before 10pm and said ‘your permit expires at 10pm; wrap it up’.  I told the band to do a full on jam session, so they played one song that went until 10:30! The cops were apoplectic but they weren’t about to rush the stage and shut it down and risk a riot!”

Even though Black Diamond has been the host for many years, avalanche safety is a cause that all brands pull together to support, so other backcountry gear companies like locals Voile, Atomic, DPS, Skimo.Co, Liberty Mountain Sports, Ascent Magazine, and and farther afield companies like Scott Sports and BCA have paid for booths and donated silent auction items.  Additionally, every year local politicians find it important to mingle with the backcountry community and wander the party; they’ll be the only folks wearing suits!

The silent auction itself has evolved as well; Chad Brackelsberg is the new Executive Director of the UAC, and has an IT background, so he worked to implement a new system that, according to him:  “allows people to bid online before and during the party so that even if you can’t attend, you can still take part in the silent auction. It also allows people to enjoy the party with their friends and be able to bid on items and receive notifications of being out bid real time so they do not have to be hovering over the item’s clipboard as in years’ past.  We are also able to collect payments and distribute the won auction items very quickly and efficiently at the end of the night, rather than trying to connect auction winners with their items in the days following. “

The fall fundraiser party started as a desperation move to keep this mission alive after the community realized its importance after a tragic accident, and from it’s humble beginnings of a few dirtbags drinking beer in BD’s breezeway it’s become a vital component in maintaining funding for many different types avalanche education. As Drew Hardesty, longtime forecaster/philosopher put it recently: “It’s no secret we have the Greatest Backcountry Community on Earth to match the Greatest Snow on Earth, and we really couldn’t do what we do without the support of the community.  Thanks to Black Diamond Equipment, I think it’s the best party of the year and an excellent way to kick off the winter.”

This year’s party gets underway at 6pm on Thursday September 13. The online silent auction will open around September 6 and tickets are on sale now at the Utah Avalanche Center website.  As always, there will be free food, beer, and entertainment.  The Wasatch Weather Weenie has noted that there is a clear historic correlation between the party turnout and crowd excitement and the quantity and quality of the upcoming snow year. 

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