SALT LAKE CITY -- One wrong step doomed an experienced backcountry skier and avalanche professional who knew as well as anyone how to stay out of danger, says a detailed report on the highway worker who was scouting terrain to keep others safe in the Wasatch mountains.
Craig Patterson, a 34-year-old avalanche forecaster for the Utah Department of Transportation, deployed a special air bag that kept him afloat in the roiling snow of a 45-degree chute, but it couldn't stop him from being dragged into trees and over rocks. He was found dead Friday with head injuries.
It was the first death of a Utah avalanche forecaster on the job, and the fourth U.S. professional to die since 1980 -- one was killed by a roof avalanche in Alaska, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
With a single step, investigators believe, Patterson shuffled from safe ground to unstable snow across an indistinct divide, "the kind of accident that could have happened to any of us," Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, wrote in the report. "Only a foot or two separated safe snow from dangerous snow."
Patterson may have been inspecting God's Lawnmower, a notable slide path of sparse trees off 10,403-foot Kessler Peak that can endanger a highway below in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
He was apparently making a switchback turn to safer ground with climbing skins under his skis when he was sucked 1,380 vertical feet down another slide path. A report posted online (http://bit.ly/112FHAQ) shows his tracks disappearing into the avalanche path.
"He was a very safe guy," Tremper said Monday. "I doubt he intended to go onto that slope."
Nationwide, 18 have died avalanches this season, mostly recently on Saturday, when a snowshoer was dug out from under five feet of snow in the Cascade mountains east of Seattle. Another avalanche in the same region Saturday left no trace of a 60-year-old hiker who remains missing.
U.S. avalanche deaths climbed steeply around 1990 to an average of around 24 a year as new gear became available for backcountry travel. Until then, avalanches rarely claimed more than a handful of lives each season in records going back to 1950.
"The skis are better, stronger and lighter," said John Snook, avalanche forecaster for Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a clearinghouse for national statistics. "People are heading to the backcountry."
Avalanche control can be risky too. In December, a veteran ski patroller was buried by a slide intentionally set by another member of his patrol at Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe. Bill Foster, 53, died of injuries a day later.
Patterson was scouting terrain for slides that could threaten traffic leading to two of Utah's ski areas, Brighton and Solitude.
He was one of eight backcountry professionals for UDOT who climb mountains on skis and drop explosives to set off avalanches, usually early in the morning before ski resorts open. They also fire cannon shells from fixed positions, working round-the-clock shifts.
The agency is evaluating whether it should require avalanche forecasters to work in pairs so one can dig the other out from any slide, said UDOT spokesman Adam Carrillo.
They often work alone because they have so much terrain to cover.
A memorial service for Patterson was scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Alta. He left behind a wife and 6-year-old daughter.