After backcountry deaths, an expert urges education, keeping an eye on weather

Vermont News

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WFFF) – Safety should be your first priority before you hit the slopes and go out of bounds. Skiers and snowmobilers of all experience levels are getting injured or killed from dangerous decisions and weather conditions.

On Saturday morning, an avalanche buried eight people in Mill Creek Canyon, Utah. The tourers were hiking in the backcountry when the avalanche hit, killing four members of the group.

“It’s been a tough week for the avalanche and the backcountry ski community. Since January 30, there has been 15 people killed in avalanches across the United States,” said Patrick Scanlan.

Scanlan is a backcountry ski guide from New Hampshire and the Backcountry Program Director for Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine. He is also on the Board of Directors for a non-profit that supports the Mount Washington Avalanche Center.

“Ultimately, one of the biggest allures of backcountry skiing is finding that fresh snow that nobody has been to yet. And at the same time, it is one of the best parts about it, but it can also be one of the most dangerous parts about it,” said Scanlan.

He says, three things must occur to trigger an avalanche: a slope that is greater than 30 degrees, wind gusts or human contact, and slab snow atop a weaker layer of snow.

The Vermont State Police reported another tragedy closer to home. Two women were driving a snowmobile in Salisbury, Vermont when it crashed into an embankment and several trees.  The passenger was 39-year-old Kristle Humiston. She died in the crash.

VSP spokesperson Adam Silverman said in a statement: “This is an ongoing investigation and alcohol impairment is suspected to be a contributing factor to this crash.”  

Though the accident was not caused by an avalanche, Scanlan says his safety teachings still apply, whether you’re backcountry skiing, climbing, or snowmobiling. The right equipment and training could save your life.  

“If you’re someone who is really interested in doing more backcountry skiing, you’re going to be out a couple times a year, it’s a really good idea to take a formal course,” said Scanlan.

There, he talks about about safety tips and strategies. These courses are free and can be found the Mount Washington Avalanche Center website. 

“Find your local avalanche center and make sure to read that forecast. Just like if you were going to check the weather if you were going to the beach, a meteorologist is writing those forecasts. Similarly, an avalanche forecaster is writing those forecasts for the mountain areas,” said Scanlan. 

Along with checking the forecast, avoiding avalanche terrain is another crucial safety tip.  

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