Nearly every winter morning, Craig Gordon wakes long before the sun, slides his feet into his ski boots, grabs his touring skis and sets off into the Utah mountains to hunt for dragons.
After 35 years around them, he’s come to know quite a bit about the beasts. He knows where they’re most likely to build their lairs and what draws them out. He knows when they’re prone to be in deep sleep and when they’ll be so ill-tempered that the slightest misstep might provoke them to unleash their fury on anything in their path. Though armed only with his backcountry safety gear, his vast knowledge and an eye for detail, he takes no chances.
This winter, the dragons — Gordon’s pet term for avalanches — are particularly restless. Six people have been killed in slides in the state’s mountains this year, two shy of the 2007 record, according to the Utah Avalanche Center’s database. And there’s still plenty of winter and danger left.
In anticipation of last week’s big storm, Gordon and his colleagues at the Utah Avalanche Center issued their most alarming “extreme danger” warning for all of Utah’s northern mountains. Gordon said he can probably count on one hand the number of times the center has raised the threat level that high during his career, and to have one that blankets such a large swath of territory is almost unheard of.
Still, even in those conditions, the avalanche forecaster goes on the hunt. The thinking is, if he can find the dragons where they sleep, maybe he can steer others away.
The lives of avalanche forecasters and others like Gordon who have made it their life’s work to understand and educate others about the potentially lethal snowslides is the subject of the book “Dragons in the Snow: Avalanche detectives and the race to beat death in the mountains,” written by Utah author Edward Power.
The common thread among these “detectives,” Power said, is “the pride in doing the job right and doing it really well and the pride in hoping to protect those people and see the fewest accidents and certainly the fewest deaths.”
The early morning eruption of avalanche detonation devices around Powder Mountain near his home in Eden inspired Power to take a deeper look into avalanches, their trackers and their victims. He said the book isn’t a how-to backcountry guide, but more a cautionary tale for anyone making the mountains and forests their winter playground.
“If I can do this book and somebody takes some lessons away from this and maybe one life gets saved, then it’s worth it,” Power said. “Because people make a lot of mistakes in the backcountry.”
Educating people how to best avoid those mistakes is one of the founding purposes of the Utah Avalanche Center. Gordon has worked for the center for the past two decades, developing its well-known Know Before You Go program, and also spent time in Utah’s mountains as a ski patroller and a helicopter guide. He often teaches backcountry safety and avalanche rescue courses. The people who feel like they know the most about avalanches, he said, are the ones who just finished their first class.
One close call usually takes care of that issue.
“It’s crazy. You can be in this career for 20, 30 years and you still never know quite as much as you did like that first year or two ...,” Gordon said. “Snow is a tricky medium and we’re always learning about it. Particularly going into this year.”
This season’s snowpack is one of the most temperamental Gordon has seen. Unusually wet and heavy snow has been falling on an old, thin base that got little protection from the elements since it was set down in November and early December. As the new snow stacks up, it creates pressure on the base. When that base gives way, triggered naturally or perhaps by the weight of a skier, snowmobiler or snowshoer, the consequences are often swift and relentless.
All six who died in the Wasatch Mountains this year were experienced skiers or boarders who were taking precautions to avoid triggering avalanches. Only one was without a partner and the basic backcountry safety gear: a shovel, beacon and probe.
Throughout his reporting, though, Power found avalanches do not discriminate between those with experience and those without it, or those on guided tours and those who go out on their own. They don’t care if an area historically has been safe, or if others had crossed a slope without harm. Education, awareness and communication can keep people out of an avalanche, but once they’re caught in one, all bets are off.
“You can literally go, you know, years and years, decades in the backcountry and get rewarded for really crummy behavior,” Gordon said. “And then one day you don’t get rewarded and you get worked and maybe you come home to your family and maybe you don’t.”
Power talked to many who came home but were forever changed. He also interviewed the friends and family of some who had worse luck.
He said he’s often asked if writing the book — a National Outdoor Book Awards winner — has scared him away from backcountry touring. The lifelong skier who moved to Utah in 2016 for the sport said it hasn’t. It has, however, given him a new respect for the perils hidden in the mountains and for the people who brave them for the benefit of others. Power said he’s much more sensitive to the fact that it’s not just his life he’s putting on the line if he decides to ski something he isn’t sure is safe.
That’s something Gordon, too, considers every time he slides his climbing skins on his skis in preparation for his daily hunt. Some areas aren’t worth tangling with.
Or, as Gordon put it, “The way you deal with big, deep, scary dragons is you avoid them.”