Palisades tragedy triggers talk of wearing avalanche beacons at resorts

Resorts say skiers, snowboarders shouldn’t feel they need one inbounds, but wearing one doesn’t hurt.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign lets backcountry skiers and boarders know their avalanche beacons are turned on and working before heading into the North Fork Trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

When powderhounds at Brighton Resort showed up Wednesday to plunge into Milly Bowl — the Big Cottonwood Canyon resort’s most extreme terrain — after it opened for the first time this season, they had to be packing more than their pass.

In what is believed to be a first for a Utah resort, Brighton’s ski patrol required anyone entering the inbounds terrain off of Milly Express to be carrying an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe.

That combination of gear is commonly carried by backcountry skiers as well as resort guests who plan to venture out of bounds. Recently, however, more skiers and snowboarders appear to be considering wearing at least a beacon inbounds as well, especially when the avalanche danger is as high as it is right now in northern Utah and across much of the West.

“That’s a great call,” wrote Instagram user katiesummernelson in one of several appreciative responses to Brighton’s post about the restrictions. “We’re wearing our beacons inbounds all the time in these conditions.”

“Such a great call requiring avy gear,” commenter trvrwlsn added. “Hopefully something that can happen more frequently in the future!”

Nearly 10 feet of snow fell at Alta Ski Area over the past week, and most other resorts across the state saw at least 5 feet during that span, including 80 inches at Brighton. The water-heavy flakes that fell over last weekend were chaperoned by high winds and mostly fell on top of snow that has been lazing around — and turning increasingly slick — for more than a month. That adds up to what the Utah Avalanche Center on Sunday deemed “Extreme” avalanche conditions in the backcountry. According to the UAC, which only forecasts for the backcountry, avalanche danger remained “Considerable” to “High” in the mountains around Salt Lake City.

Generally, skiing within a resort’s boundaries is considered reasonably safe, however. Ski patrol teams rise early and go to great lengths to scan for and preventatively trigger avalanches. The compaction caused by skiers taking lap after lap can also tamp down danger. As a result, the chance of an inbounds avalanche is so low at most resorts that beacons are barely considered, much less recommended.

Yet two inbounds avalanches at Palisades Tahoe last week, one of them deadly, demonstrated why the work resort ski safety teams perform is called avalanche mitigation, not avalanche control. Plus, even when avalanche conditions aren’t among the worst on the UAC’s scale, heavy snowfall can create other dangers, such as deep snow drifts and tree wells.

All of which might leave one wondering whether they should be strapping on a beacon next time they visit their favorite ski area, even if it’s not required.

As with many pieces of ski gear, it’s a matter of preference. In fact, Brighton spokesperson Jared Winkler compared wearing a beacon to wearing a helmet.

“So many people ride without one,” he said, “but some people won’t ride without it.

“It wouldn’t hurt if they have one to wear it,” Winkler added. “We’re never going to say it’s not needed. If they don’t have one and they’re going to ski inbounds, they should feel comfortable doing that.”

Avalanche beacons, which cost around $300, are small radio transceivers. Typically one is worn across the chest to keep it from being separated from the wearer if they’re caught in a slide. When switched on, it constantly transmits a locator signal and can be switched into “search” mode to pick up those signals from other beacons.

When Tom Moyer of Park City bought his father-in-law a beacon, it wasn’t because he had delusions that the 80-year-old would one day join him in the backcountry. Rather, he sees the beacon as a form of insurance for his father-in-law’s adventures on snowy days similar to what Utah has experienced of late.

A student tests the range of her avalanche beacon during a ladies level one avalanche course at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 31, 2020. (Hunter D'Antuono/Flathead Beacon via AP)

“When we bought it for him, it was ‘Yeah, you’re skiing alone on powder days and you could end up in a tree well with nobody seeing you go in. And if you do, ski patrol will catch you on sweeps because they’re going to turn their beacons on and find you,” Moyer said. “They’re going to listen for a signal, even if nobody can hear you, even if nobody can find you. And then, if you’re skiing bowls by yourself with nobody to watch you go down, the first thing ski patrol is going to do if there’s an inbound avalanche is go sweep it with beacons.’

“So yes, for him it’s entirely to be found. That’s all you need. You don’t need to know how to use the thing at all. Just turn it on. Wear it and turn it on. Ski patrol will do the rest.”

Moyer said his experience as part of Snowbird’s ski safety team prompted him to choose an avalanche beacon over the much more affordable RECCO patch for his father-in-law. The RECCO patch, which costs only about 50 cents and is often pre-embedded by manufacturers of winter coats and ski bibs, is also a geolocator. It is a reflector, meaning it doesn’t radiate anything and doesn’t interfere with beacon signals. However, it can only be detected by a special locator that most resorts keep in their ski patrol shacks. With most people unable to survive more than 15 minutes buried under the snow, the time it takes to fetch the locator could prove costly. Search-equipped avalanche beacons, meanwhile, are standard issue for all ski patrollers.

But wearing a beacon — or other backcountry avalanche gear like probes (sticks used to poke into the snow for bodies) and shovels — doesn’t have to be a selfish act.

Several guests of the Palisades Tahoe resort watched in horror from the KT-22 lift last Wednesday as a 150-foot wide and 450-foot long avalanche broke off in one of the area’s bowls. Some then joined the more than 100 Palisades personnel in the rescue effort. One of them posted on X, formerly Twitter, that not all the searchers had probes, so they had to trade them off. Ultimately, rescuers turned up four buried people. One suffered a broken leg and another, 66-year-old snowboarder Kenneth Kidd of California, died. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, his was the first avalanche death at a resort since four people died in two separate inbounds avalanches during the 2019-20 season.

The following day, another avalanche rumbled through a different area within the same resort.

Moyer said that’s why he wears his beacon when skiing inbounds on deep powder days.

“The idea that I would be nearby, like in that Palisades situation, and not be equipped to help is revolting,” he said. “I would never forgive myself. So there’s a healthy dose of ‘I don’t want to be unprepared to help somebody’ in my case.”

Both Moyer and Winkler said avalanche beacons only really warrant consideration on powder days or if a skier or snowboarder has even a slight inclination to venture out of bounds.

However, when it comes to backcountry explorers — including skiers and splitboarders, but also snowmobilers, snowshoers and dog walkers — the UAC recommends everyone carry a beacon, shovel and probe at all times during winter travel in addition to bringing a partner.

“You need all of those to be traveling safely,” said Dave Kelly, a UAC forecaster.

For now, the snowfall has subsided. Yet Kelly said he expects the avalanche danger to remain high for several days and perhaps more than a week.

“The danger will remain elevated … until the snowpack has had more of that time to settle and get comfortable with its new clothes, effectively,” he said. “And then, at that point, the danger will start to drop. But because the persistent weak layer has had so long to develop, it takes longer for that persistent weak layer to fully go away.”

As for people carrying beacons and other avalanche gear at resorts? Some hope that sticks around.

In responding to Brighton’s Instagram post about closing Milly Bowl, commenter adrennan_ wrote: “This should be done in a lot of terrain at a lot of mountains more often.”