Utah Avalanche Center’s ‘Know Before You Go’ is a must for backcountry adventurers

By Andrew Nassetta

Avalanches kill an average of 42 people each year in North America (five in Utah in 2019 as of press time), with hundreds more injured.

Many avalanche victims are unaware they’re in danger and are unprepared to deal with backcountry hazards. In 2003, three young Utah men died in a late December avalanche in Provo Canyon near the Aspen Grove trailhead off of a peak called Elk Point. Five boarders were caught and carried in the avalanche—two partially buried who survived, and three fully buried under the snow, who died—and none wearing avalance transceivers.

In response to this tragic event came the Know Before You Go program. While not a substitute for avalanche education, this one-hour program is designed to demonstrate the destructive power of avalanches and create awareness of the steps you need to take before venturing into the backcountry and avalanche terrain.

The destructive path of an avalanche

The danger signs are obvious to those who know what to look for. Just like those living near the ocean and large bodies of water learn at an early age to respect the dangers of the sea, those of us working and recreating in the snow-covered mountains need to learn about avalanches. Those lessons can save lives.

Know Before You Go teaches a five-step systematic approach to snow and avalanche safety:

Get the Gear. Before setting foot into the backcountry and avalanche terrain, you have to have the proper equipment. Essential avalanche rescue equipment is no different than a hard hat on a construction site or a seatbelt in a car — even though you hope to never use it, you need to carry and wear it.

Get the Training. Even more important than having all the right equipment and carrying it in the backcountry is knowing how to use it properly. What good are an avalanche transceiver, probe and rescue shovel if they are not used properly? Get a partner who also has the proper gear, take a formal avalanche class and practice together.

Get the Forecast. Before heading out for a hike in the hills or a day of riding in the woods, we always check the weather forecast to avoid hazardous conditions and plan our day— the backcountry is no different. The Utah Avalanche Center provides a detailed avalanche forecast on a daily basis for at least eight different mountain regions in Utah. Professional avalanche forecasters tell you exactly what to watch out for and how to plan your day to keep you on top of the greatest snow on earth, and not buried below it.

Get the Picture. When we are traveling in the backcountry, we need to pay attention to obvious red flags. Recent avalanches, cracking or collapsing, heavy snowfall, wind loading and rapid thaw are all obvious signs of snow instabilities. Encountering one of these usually drives the decision to change travel plans or head back to the trailhead for beverages of choice.

Get Out of Harm’s Way. Not only can we take obvious red flags into account, but we can also travel wisely and use good techniques to avoid danger. Expose one person at a time to a slope. Avoid stopping and grouping in terrain traps and avalanche run-out zones. Have good communication, have a plan and stick to it!

Know Before You Go is taught internationally in 30 countries and is translated into more than 11 languages. It has reached nearly 200,000 individuals in Utah alone and continues to grow. New for the 2019-20 season, the Utah Avalanche Center has produced three sequential talks covering Avalanche and Backcountry Gear, Terrain Management and the Science of Avalanches. Check in with your local outdoor shop and ask them when their next Know Before You Go talk is.

Andrew Nassetta is an outreach and awareness specialist at Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center.