SALT LAKE CITY — Utah avalanche season is in full swing and has claimed the lives of four people already, leaving experts urging that learning more about the deadly slides is an important way to stay safe.
"A little bit of avalanche education can go a long way and help people feel confident that they can go out, get out in the snow, have fun, and come home safely every day," said Mark Staples, director and avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center.
According to the center, the 30-year running average of avalanche deaths has dropped in recent years to 2 1/2 yearly. Until this season, the state hadn't experienced any deaths since the 2015-16 winter, when two people died.
Not only is having proper equipment a necessity for people going out in the backcountry snow, but learning how to use it is crucial, Staples said.
"No one practices as much as they should and we could all stand to practice more," he said. "You can never know enough. The more you train the more you can shape what your first instinct's going to be."
While there's no hard-and-fast rule for how many times a person should practice with their equipment, he said a good rule of thumb is to practice "until you personally feel comfortable with it."
The center offers multiple statewide avalanche beacon training sites, designed for people to practice with their avalanche equipment.
Proper avalanche equipment includes an avalanche beacon, a shovel and a probe, all used to help either locate others caught in an avalanche or be located yourself.
This equipment is crucial to saving victims of avalanches. The beacon transmits a signal so the group can locate a person who has been caught in the snow, then the search party will probe the snow to find exactly where they are. Finally, the shovel will be used to dig the person out. All this has to be done in 20 minutes or less for the best chance of survival.
Other equipment includes avalanche airbags, something that's not standard yet but becoming more popular among backcountry snow enthusiasts, according to Kevin Gmitro, co-owner of secondhand outdoor equipment store The Gear Room.
However, he said a lot of people think it's too heavy and too expensive.
The majority of avalanches are triggered by the victims or members of the victims' party, but Staples said there's nothing those people are actively doing wrong — just simply being in an area prone to avalanches can cause a slide.
"It's not like they're doing something different," he said. "Just being there on a slope is what triggers the avalanche."
But he said if people can wait before going out in the backcountry, it can make a big difference.
"A little patience goes a long way," he said. "Snowpack is getting deeper and stronger, it keeps getting stressed by all this heavy snow which means in the short term its dangerous but in the long term it's getting stronger and things will be more stable."
Everyone who plans on braving steep backcountry slopes, even people who are experienced, should always continue to educate themselves on avalanches, Gmitro said.
"Even the most experienced snow forecasters and skiers make mistakes and so it's imperative that you never stop learning, that the education never stops," he said. "Never let your guard down."
Terrain with at least a 30 degree slope are at risk for avalanches, the equivalent of a black diamond slope, Staples said.
"And as long as you're not on anything steeper, you can go out and play all day long and never worry about avalanches," he said.
For people who want to run the steeper slopes, education and awareness is key to staying safe, according to Jake Ward, outdoor educator for University of Utah.
He emphasized that anyone, no matter what level of experience, should take a class before heading up to the steeper slopes — even if it's a refresher course.Comment on this story
"We all live in the mountains, and whether we're recreating or driving through and taking photos … we should be aware of the biggest hazard that's going to kill us," Ward said. "That's why we're teaching about avalanches."
He also advised that people should never go alone to recreate in the backcountry, they should tell someone where they're going, what time to expect to hear from them and provide contacts to call if they aren't heard from by that time.
Those contacts should be fellow group members, he advised, and if no one responds, call local dispatch.
More information about the Utah Avalanche Center and the education courses it offers are available on its website, utahavalanchecenter.org.