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Education, planning are crucial elements to safety in Utah’s backcountry, according to Westminster faculty, student

a man hikes up a snowy mountain with skiis and a yellow puffer jacket
Westminster College neuroscience professor Russ Costa skins up a slope in Little Cottonwood Canyon in April, 2022. Skinning involves adding a nylon material to the bottom of skis so skiers can travel up slopes without sliding backward, according to The New York Times. Photo courtesy Beth Lopex, provided by Russ Costa.

There’s nothing like the solitude in the wintertime that can be experienced through recreation in the backcountry of nearby mountains, according to Westminster College mathematics professor Jonas D’Andrea. 

Recreation in the backcountry, whether it’s snowshoeing, skiing or snowboarding, is something people in the Westminster community should experience, according to D’Andrea. 

The backcountry refers to areas outside of monitored, established ski areas, according to Greg Gagne, a computer science faculty member, who said he has worked at Westminster for 32 years. 

Know Before You Go

For the last 20 years, Gagne said he has worked as a part-time forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center. Education and planning are two of the most important factors when going into the backcountry, and the Utah Avalanche Center exists for the safety of those enjoying local mountain recreation activities in the winter, according to Gagne. 

“I think the forecast is the most valuable [resource for the Westminster community],” Gagne said. 

Forecasting for the Utah Avalanche Center entails issuing daily avalanche forecasts based on current conditions, and informing those traveling in the backcountry of the risks associated with the different mountain areas in Utah on any given day when snow is present, according to Gagne. 

There are other resources that can be accessed through the Utah Avalanche Center website, according to Gagne. The most valuable to the Westminster Community are the forecasts, the Know Before You Go website on avalanche awareness and avalanche preparedness classes offered by the UAC or other organizations, according to Gagne. 

Understand the Danger

Jonas D’Andrea is a mathematics professor and said he has been learning about skiing in the backcountry since he got out of the United States Air Force in 1997. He gradually became more and more educated about terrain in the backcountry as he learned from mentors and various avalanche courses, according to D’Andrea.

One aspect of safety D’Andrea said he wants to draw more attention to is shallow snow burials, especially when traveling alone. Shallow snow burials refer to getting stuck in the snow and not being able to get out, according to D’Andrea.

“It doesn’t get talked about as much, but I think the statistics [show] people die from that as much as they do avalanches,” D’Andrea said.

There are many appeals to recreation in the backcountry, D’Andrea said, and getting to be outside in the wintertime is the main attraction for him.

“For me, it’s about being outdoors, it’s a way to exercise that I really enjoy,” D’Andrea said.

Russ Costa, a neuroscience professor at Westminster, said he skis in the backcountry around an estimated 80 to 100 days a year. 

“I kind of like being in the mountains away from people so I can be with like, two or three of my friends or partners as opposed to like 1,000 of my friends in the [ski lift] line,” Costa said.

Costa said he was told early on in his experience with the backcountry by mentors that it is often human factors and human error into trouble in backcountry terrain. Snow is complex and predictable, and people get in trouble when they convince themselves otherwise, Costa said. 

Costa said there are times when he could be wrong about whether a slope in the backcountry is safe to ski, but he tries to er on the side of caution.

“[Being cautious] means I can ski next week, next month, next year,” Costa said. “I’m just not willing to take the chance to be wrong.” 

Safety with Trusted Partners

AJ Verkouw, the director of outdoor programs at Westminster College, said he teaches an Intro to Backcountry Touring class through the school. The course involves two classroom sessions and three field days where students learn some of the basics about recreation in the backcountry, according to Verkouw.

An important part of safety when out in the backcountry is group dynamics, according to Verkouw.

“There’s a different level of reliance and vulnerability that’s required to be a good backcountry skiing partner,” Verkouw said.

Some of the appeals of backcountry skiing are the deeper relationships that are formed from “hard conversations, grappling with expectations and or harsh realities,” according to Verkouw.

Alliy Hansen, a senior environmental science major, said her experience with skiing in the backcountry for the last two years has taught her the importance of group dynamics. 

“It’s more important to have the right people with you rather than having a large group,” Hansen said. 

The essential part of a good group is being able to “pull the ego out of it,” according to Hansen. Understanding the danger associated with skiing in the backcountry and being able to assess risk with a level head is how to avoid letting one’s ego get in the way, Hansen said. 

As a skier, Hansen said she will often travel into the backcountry to build jumps. Hansen said she factors how far away the nearest medical care is when trying a new trick. It’s something others should take into consideration, too, according to Hansen. 

Hansen said, “If you’re gonna take these big risks, [think] ‘how far away is the hospital?’ And if the hospital is not far away, ‘who can [influence] your safety and [perform] your first aid?’”

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Madi Goddard (she/her/hers) is a third-year communication major minoring in French at Westminster College. She excels at finding ways to spend money but enjoys reading books and decorating for holidays in her downtime. Her favorite animal is a dog and she swears she’s never met one she didn’t like.

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