By Drew Hardesty

In the aftermath of last January’s tragic avalanche fatality in the La Sal Mountains near Moab, the state of Utah declared the first week of each December as Avalanche Awareness Week. Utah state Rep. Phil Lyman (R, San Juan County) and state Sen. Kirk Cullimore (R, Salt Lake County, District 9) submitted House Bill 380 to Gov. Gary Herbert, which he promptly signed into law. The bill designates the first week of each December as statewide Avalanche Awareness Week as a way to support avalanche awareness and education throughout the great state of Utah. The bill was enthusiastically supported by the Utah Avalanche Center, the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, the USDA Forest Service, Utah Department of Transportation, Utah State Parks, local search and rescue groups and avalanche safety gear manufacturers.

The avalanche victim in the La Sals was Utah’s 118th avalanche fatality in the modern era, and before the winter was over, we suffered two more in-state fatalities. This gave us four tragic fatalities for the season, with another Utahn killed while snowmobiling in Idaho. In my recent study looking at recreational avalanche fatalities in Utah in the modern era, avalanches have claimed the lives of 120 people since 1940. (The “modern era” refers to the post-mining decades — beyond the late 1800s and early 1900s — and for this study begins with an avalanche fatality near Alta on Jan. 1, 1940.)

Avalanches are equal opportunity killers; that is, they do not discriminate in regard to age, gender, experience level, nor by how one chooses to recreate in the backcountry. Victims include men, women, children (even multiple children in one case), skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, snowmobilers, climbers, beginners to the very experienced. As the late Swiss avalanche researcher André Roch reminds us, “the avalanche does not know that you are the expert.” We should be reminded that each winter, men and women of the ski patrols at our world-famous ski resorts and avalanche technicians with UDOT and the USFS go to great lengths to provide for public safety across the state. Still, avalanches are by far the No. 1 natural hazard, with lightning a distant second.

It might be tempting to look at these fatalities as just numbers, but at the end of the day, each incident is not a number at all. Each incident is a human being, a person with a family and a community, with dreams and aspirations whose life was taken from them by an avalanche.

The mission of the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) is to keep people on top of the Greatest Snow on Earth rather than buried beneath it. The UAC is a partnership between the USDA Forest Service and a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and issues daily avalanche forecasts for eight regions across the state while providing education and outreach to thousands of Utahns each winter. Now, with the support of Gov. Herbert and the Utah Legislature, the UAC and its partners will host an annual Avalanche Awareness Week the first week of December with the goal of increasing the awareness of the danger of avalanches to the residents of Utah.

During Avalanche Awareness Week, the UAC and its partners will host events, classes and other activities to promote avalanche awareness, education and safety. This week will help Utahns learn to both avoid avalanches while enjoying the Greatest Snow on Earth and come home safely each day to their friends and family. To find out more information or to get involved, visit https://utahavalanchecenter.org/blog/47768.

Drew Hardesty is a forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center.

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