Skiing is Serious Business in Utah

Let’s face it – one of the main draws to Utah is the incredible skiing. Thousands of vacationers flock to the Salt Lake City area and other mountain-rich ski meccas every year for a few days of downhill or cross country bliss.

But there is a third option for those who like to think outside the box and perhaps, leave the lift lines behind but still have an incredible snow experience: backcountry skiing.

Skinning up through aspens in Big Cottonwood Canyon

Skiing powder on a bluebird day in Little Cottonwood Canyon

Libby Ellis is Natural Retreats’ visual asset & organic social media manager, and in her downtime likes to join friends to go backcountry skiing.

Although she has been skiing “since she could walk,” it’s important to note as she says, “there are no experts when it comes to ski safety,” especially when tackling mountain terrains that can kiss the clouds at 10,000 feet elevations.

That’s why she recently completed a three-day avalanche safety course with the Utah Avalanche Center

According to the Center website, most avalanche fatalities happen to people unaware of the avalanche risk they face.

“I want to make sure that I am safe, and the friends I ski with will be safe,” she explained recently. Libby also raced throughout college as a member of the Northern Michigan University Cross Country ski team.

The course she took with friends was sponsored by the Center, which has been “keeping skiers on their toes” for more than 40 years. According to avalanche.org , there have been 33 fatalities in the 2020-2021 ski season in the United States to date, which includes snowboarders and snowmobilers.

Day one of Libby’s training was an intensive course on practicing rescue methods. A beacon was buried in the snow and the trainees had to find the beacon and unbury it. “We always carry a shovel and a probe as well,” she said, when skiing out.

Digging in avalanche snow is no walk in the park. “it’s not light and fluffy. It’s like digging out bricks of cement.”

Day two of the training was focused on “snow science.” The class had to dig a large pit and examine the various layers of snow like winter-time archeologists which help an experienced skier spot the snow’s weaknesses.

The third day was route finding. “You have to look at the terrain and find the safest way to get to where you want to go,” she said.

In the Salt Lake City area, both Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon are excellent places to go backcountry skiing.

Inspecting terrain and making a route plan in Big Cottonwood Canyon

Inspecting the layers of the snow and testing for snow density

Our Natural Retreats intrepid skier and creative co-worker also offers up these five tips for visitors who may want to hit the back country:

1) Have the right gear. Always make sure you have your safety equipment with you – beacon, shovel, and probe are a must. Be sure you are familiar with how to use all of your equipment and double check that you have enough battery life in your beacon for a full day in the mountains. This can save you or a friend’s life if they are the victim of an avalanche. Statistics show that the survival rate for avalanche victims drops drastically after 15 minutes of burial.

2) Never stop educating yourself. Even if you are a seasoned backcountry skier it is important to constantly practice your skills and refresh your knowledge. Doing things like frequent beacon practices and checking the avalanche report daily are important steps for safe backcountry travel. Take the online ‘Know Before You Go’ Class. which is great for people just starting to get into backcountry skiing. There are also plenty of classes that are available in addition to Level 1 and 2 backcountry courses such as Backcountry 101 and Avalanche Rescue. A full list of available classes in Utah can be found here.

3) Don’t go it alone. Always ski with a partner or small group. If you’re visiting an area and aren’t sure where to go, reach out to local avalanche centers or guiding companies for safe terrain recommendations. There are also likely Facebook or Meetup groups for those looking for back country ski buddies.

4) Invest in a good GPS app. For the Salt Lake area, Libby recommends the Wassach Mountain App. The phone app costs a few bucks but is well worth the added safety when out on your skis to better know the conditions around you.

5) Be prepared. Check the Avalanche Report to make sure you know what the conditions are like before planning what you want to do for the day. The Utah Avalanche Center forecast can be found here. Make a plan, let people know when and where you’re going, and have a quick exit plan in case of emergencies. If you plan to make backcountry skiing a regular habit (and according to Libby it is highly addictive) invest in an avalanche training safety course!

Skiing the mountains of Utah is exhilarating and a picture-taking paradise. But being prepared, remaining aware of your surroundings, and not skiing alone will make for a more enjoyable day out in the mountains. Because when it comes to the mountain vs skier, “the mountain always wins,” said Libby.

Below are some of the avalanche “myths” shared on the Utah Avalanche Center website:
• "Loud noises trigger avalanches": Although it's a convenient plot device in the movies noise does NOT trigger avalanches. Even sonic booms or low flying helicopter trigger avalanches only in extremely unstable conditions. In 90 percent of avalanche fatalities, the avalanche is triggered by the weight of the victim or someone in the victim's party.

• "An Avalanche is a bunch of loose snow sliding down the mountain": Avalanche professionals call these "sluffs." Loose snow avalanches account for only a very small percentage of deaths and property damage. What we normally call avalanches are "slabs" or cohesive plates of snow that shatter like a pane of glass and slide as a unit off the mountainside.

• Avalanches "strike without warning": We often hear the word "strike" used in the popular media. Avalanches almost always have obvious signs. In 90 percent of all avalanche accidents, the avalanche is triggered by the victim or someone in the victim's party. Natural avalanches occur because new or windblown snow overloads weak-layers or because of rapid warming, but there are almost always obvious signs of instability by the time avalanches come down on their own.

Hopefully this will help you stay safe the next time you hit the slopes. Explore our ski guides before you go!

(DISCLAIMER: Backcountry skiing involves a lot of risk. Do not go unless you have the proper gear and knowledge. Simply stepping into the side country at a resort can put you into high consequence terrain that could be deadly.)