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How To Prepare For The West's Most Deadly Natural Disaster

Students shovel snow as a team while attending an avalanche rescue class near Park City, Utah.
Nate Hegyi
Mountain West News Bureau
Students shovel snow as a team while attending an avalanche rescue class near Park City, Utah.

On a frigid Tuesday evening, Brent Yatkeman is scrambling to save an avalanche victim buried in the snow somewhere on a ski hill near Park City, Utah. 

The victim is wearing an emergency beacon, and Yatkeman — wearing a headlamp — picks up a weak signal on his transceiver. As he walks closer, the staccato beeps quicken until the target is beneath his feet. Yatkeman grabs a small shovel and begins digging as a partner steps into help. 

Everything is going according to plan until Yatkeman’s partner takes his gloves off. Lily Wolfe, an instructor with the non-profit Utah Avalanche Center, steps in and gently corrects the mistake. 

“Have you ever shoveled a lot without gloves on? I did once. You end up with some bloody hands pretty darn quick,” she says. “You won’t make that mistake again.”

Wolfe is helping teach this avalanche rescue class. The victim buried in the snow is actually just a ratty, maroon-colored backpack. But the tips Wolfe and other instructors give tonight might help save someone’s life in the future. 

Avalanches are one of the Mountain West’s most dangerous natural disasters — as of publication, 10people have already died this winter. But the Utah Avalanche Center says that classes like this are helping backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers increase their odds of survival. 

Tonight, 16 students are learning avalanche rescue techniques. They practice using emergency transceivers and learn how to shovel snow efficiently. It’s tough work — a cubic meter of densely packed snow can weigh 2,000 pounds — and the students work up a sweat digging quickly. But they have to move fast because most avalanche victims die of asphyxiation within an hour of being buried. 

“You run out of oxygen in the snowpack,” says Chad Brackelsberg, executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center. “It’s similar to drowning as a feeling but different because you’re not actually inhaling anything.”

Brackelsberg says the key to surviving an avalanche is avoiding one in the first place. That means paying attention to red flags such as snowstorms and strong winds. 

“Wind is a big one,” he says. “Wind can move ten times more snow than what falls out of the sky.”

There are also special forecasts that warn backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers about the potential danger for avalanches on any given day. Yet despite all the precautions, people can still get trapped and killed. 

It’s a lesson Yatkeman knows personally. In the 1990s he lost a friend in an avalanche in Colorado

“When the avalanche went,” he says, “[my friend] tumbled over rocks and cliffs and died from the trauma.”

It was traumatic for Yatkeman, too. He stepped back from backcountry skiing for nearly two decades while he raised his children. But now he’s returning to the sport.

“I like backcountry skiing for the peace,” he says. “Getting away from the resorts and all the crowds.”

Yatkeman says classes like this give him the confidence to hit the slopes while mitigating the risk of getting trapped in an avalanche. Statistics are on his side. Despite the increase in the number of outdoor recreationalists over the past few years, the average number of people who die in an avalanche every year has remained stable.

“It is still the most deadly natural disaster in Utah,” says Brackelsberg. “But based on this growth, we’re really happy that education, awareness, gear are keeping people safer and preventing a rise in fatalities.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Follow Nate Hegyi on Twitter @natehegyi.

Copyright 2020 KUER 90.1

Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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