Professionals, enthusiasts caution students about avalanche danger


Massive snow-covered mountains loom over campus, so close they reflect off the glass front of the Joseph F. Smith Building. Students play a figurative game of Russian roulette every time they venture into the mountains during the winter.

As the days get longer and the temperatures rise, it may be tempting to get in the snow. But the danger of avalanches isn’t over. After several days of non-freezing temperatures, wet slides and breaking cornices present an avalanche problem, according to Michael Hatch, Eastern Oregon University’s outdoor adventure program coordinator.

Utah ranks fourth in the nation for avalanche deaths since the winter of 1950 to 1951, trailing behind Colorado, Alaska and Washington, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center statistics. Avalanches took the lives of two skiers in Utah during January 2016, according to Utah Avalanche Center.

BYU doesn’t offer an avalanche safety certification course, but students have easy access to other resources. One resource, BYU Outdoors Unlimited, allows students to rent avalanche beacons, which help potential rescuers locate avalanche victims. BYU Outdoors Unlimited also rents out mountaineering skis, crampons and snowshoes.

With this equipment, people can make their way back into the mountains where no ski lift can take them.

But enjoying the back country comes with risks. BYU winter camping professor Patti Freeman said male university-aged students are the most common avalanche victims. Freeman said one of the aims of her winter camping class is to help students “realize that if they want to spend more time in the backcountry, they need to get more training.”

BYU neuroscience major Tristan Mayfield goes snowshoeing and mountaineering. Mayfield climbed Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States, in December 2014. He understands he can’t control everything, but that doesn’t keep him out of the mountains.

“There is a certain degree of risk in everything that we do, but make sure to control those things that you can control,” Whitney said.

The Utah Avalanche Center offers winter recreation classes and workshops, which anyone can attend. The center also updates avalanche advisories daily in the height of the season. Enthusiasts can use this information to see the probable avalanche danger at different elevations and aspects (directions in which a slope faces).

Mayfield gave some advice to people venturing into the mountains.

“If conditions are questionable, you have the choice to not go,” he said. “It sounds lame, but you can go and do something that’s less exciting, but at the end of the day you’ll come home alive.”

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