Donation keeps avalanche center open

Paul Kimbrough triggering a slide in Toledo Chute in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Jay Beyer

Earlier this month, the Utah Avalanche Center made plans to close for the season. Though they usually close in mid-April, they were shutting their doors early this year due to a lack of funding, caused as a result of higher than average snowfall, cost increases and a decrease in funding.

Avalanche centers are non-profit institutions that isssue forecasting and avalanche safety predictions to backcountry users, ski resorts, road and transportation organizations and local governments. Most of them operate on a combination of state and government funding, private donations and volunteer work. When the funding runs out, they're forced to close.

But for the Utah Avalanche Center, a single phone call pushed back their closing date. The Utah-based online retailer Backcountry.com called, asking how much it would cost to keep the avalanche center open and issuing forecasts for backcountry skiers for a couple more weeks. "I told them it'd be $6,300 and they said 'We're in,'" said Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center.

This week, Backcountry.com donated the $6,300 to the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, which funds the avy center with help from the U.S. Forest Service, Utah State Parks and Recreation, Salt Lake County and Utah Public Safety. As a result, the Utah Avalanche Center will be issuing weekend forecasts and intermittent weekday forecasts through April 24.

"There's too much snow in the Wasatch and there are too many people still in the backcountry. We need the UAC," said Dustin Roberston, chief marketing officer at Backcountry.com.

According to Tremper, there is no way of knowing whether or not a premature closing of the avalanche center has any kind of impact on the number of avalanche accidents, but staying open certainly can't hurt. "When we do have an avalanche warning in effect and we're calling it high or extreme danger, you don't see anybody out in the backcountry and the number of accidents goes down," he said. "So we know that people are listening to our forecasts."

This year, big late-season storms in Utah have created a potentially unstable snowpack, but Tremper said the spring is usually safer, so closing early shouldn't have as much of an effect on accident rates. "Typically in the spring, conditions are more stable and the snow is more predictable," he said. "The people who are backcountry skiing in the spring are generally more experienced so they don't need our services as much anyway."

According to the American Avalanche Association, between 1999 and 2010, the month of April has seen 29 total avalanche fatalities in the U.S., compared to the 78 total deaths during the month of January and the three total deaths in May during that same time span. So far this season, there have been 16 avalanche fatalities in the U.S. and 11 in Canada.