Utah avalanches have killed 116 skiers and snowboarders since 1958—an average of two deaths per year. Around 20 percent of those killed in avalanches are between the ages of 18 and 25—the typical age of a traditional college student.
Many students are drawn to Westminster College because of its proximity to the mountains but are unaware of the dangers that come with the winter sports.
“A lot of students that come here from the East coast don’t understand the danger of backcountry skiing [and snowboarding],” said Jeremy Collett, a junior and backcountry snowboarder from Maine. “My first year here, my friend thought avalanches were a myth.”
Nine ski resorts sit within a one-hour drive of the college, which is nestled at the foot of the Wasatch, one of Utah’s prominent mountain ranges for skiing and snowboarding. Despite easy access to resorts, some students find the terrain outside resort boundaries—known as the backcountry—more appealing, which presents an increased danger of avalanches.
Understanding the dangers of the backcountry is an important part of staying out of avalanches, said Greg Gagne, an avalanche forecaster for the Utah Forest Service Avalanche Center. In fact, half of all people killed in avalanches don’t have the necessary safety equipment, according to “Avalanche Essentials,” a primer on winter backcountry safety.
“Avalanches are pretty unforgiving,” Gagne said. “You can’t learn about avalanches by getting caught in avalanches.”
A quarter of people caught in avalanches die of trauma, according to Craig Gordon, another avalanche forecaster for the Utah Forest Service.
“The backcountry is dangerous and terrifying,” said Emilia Wint, a retired professional skier and a sophomore at Westminster. Both Wint and Collett said they took avalanche classes to become more aware of the dangers they face.
Beginner backcountry users have several classes to choose from to learn about avalanche safety. Classes range from a “Know Before You Go” class to an “Avalanche Level One” course.
The Know Before You Go class is a free avalanche awareness program that teaches students about the dangers of avalanches and basic techniques to avoid them. Avalanche Level One classes are multiple days long and include 10 hours in the classroom and two days of on-snow practical learning.
“The most important thing a student can do is take an avalanche awareness class,” Gagne said.
Gagne said avalanche safety begins with a culture of education and said if Westminster students get in the habit of checking the forecast every day and encouraging their peers to do so as well, the student body would be much safer in the backcountry.
Updated at 3:01 PM on Feb. 1: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Greg Gagne's name.