Podcast: Backcountry Avalanche Safety

Pete CodellaBusiness Elevated Podcast


Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 52)

This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Pitt Grewe, director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation at GOED, and Trent Meisenheimer from the Utah Avalanche Center.

The Business Elevated podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotify and Stitcher.



Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.


Pitt Grewe
Trent Meisenheimer

Pitt Grewe: (0:22) Hello everybody. I’m Pitt Grewe, the director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation at GOED. Today, we are up Little Cottonwood Canyon with Trent Meisenheimer from the Utah Avalanche Center. We are starting our winter this year and this week is Avalanche Awareness Week in Utah. It is something that the Legislature made a real thing in 2019, and it’s officially time for us to inform people about avalanches. Help to educate the public and just grow general awareness around it. We’re happy to have Trent with us today to talk about avalanche awareness and talk about the avalanche center in Utah. 

Thanks for being with us, Trent.

Trent Meisenheimer: (1:07) You’re welcome. Beautiful day up here. Lots of sun. Unfortunately, there is no snow.

Pitt Grewe: (1:14) We are waiting for the next storm, and we had a great early storm. Since then, we’ve seen nothing but blue skies and sunshine, which is good for some reasons, but bad for others, which we’ll get into here a little bit.

First Trent, quick question for you. How did you get involved in avalanche forecasting and avalanche work here in Utah?

Trent Meisenheimer: (1:35) You know, it’s a long story. I’ve been backcountry skiing or riding. This is my 19th season. I grew up skiing at Alta when I was two to about 10. I wanted to jib rails and hang out with the grungy snowboarders. So I kind of made the switch. A couple of years later, when I was 15, my dad bought me a split board. He had been skiing all his life, and he got into backcountry skiing in the late “90s.

He bought me a split board, and I was 15 and took me out. I was like, “Man, I can’t believe you spend all this time hiking up for one run. Why would you do such a thing when you can spin 30 to 40 laps at a ski resort and Jib rail.” It took me a minute to catch on. But, as many young people, you’re a little lost in your early and late teens. It wasn’t until I got fired from my job. The only job I’ve ever been fired from. I was working in a snowboard shop. And anyway, I hit a little bit of a rough patch, and I wasn’t doing a great job, and they let me go, and we parted ways. My parents were so awesome. I think I was 18 or 19 at the time, and they said, “Hey, winter’s just around the corner, and we have your back. Why don’t you just snowboard and have fun?” I agreed that was not a bad idea. One of my dad’s good friends, and ski partners is Rick Hoffman, he was 60 years old and retired and had close to 25 or 30 years of backcountry experience. I just started going out with him five or six days a week. I had no idea what I was doing out in the backcountry, but I had a great mentor to lead me along the way. He probably saved my life more than more times than I can account for. 

That’s kind of my start where I started getting interested in the backcountry was about 19 years old. I had a great mentor, my dad, and his friends and just started going in the backcountry. That one-year break kind of turned into a four-year break.

Pitt Grewe: (4:04) That’s interesting that my backcountry skiing experience was very similar. It was a mentor, a friend’s dad, that was also an experienced backcountry skier. And he started taking us out at a young age and educating us, and showing us kind of the ways of traveling safely through the backcountry. And it sparked a whole life of pursuit of backcountry skiing and things like that. It’s good to hear that those mentors are key to helping some of us get the experience that drives many decisions in our lives.

Trent Meisenheimer: (4:41) Yeah. I would say with my mentors; I really didn’t even know what they were doing at the time. We’d go skiing, and they had the route kind of picked out in their mind, and I would try to suggest where to go, and they might say that’s okay or that’s not okay. I didn’t know a lot about snow and avalanches. That took me probably a lot longer than it needed to. I would say I’m not as traditional where I probably should have taken a class that first year and taken some avalanche education. Where I got infatuated with avalanches is seeing avalanches in the distance, and I was always into photography and liked taking photos. I just started taking photos and submitting them to the Utah Avalanche Center on their form they have you fill out. Eventually, I got completely entrenched by the idea of how this avalanche failed. Why did it fail? And then you dig into it more and all of a sudden it becomes very sciency. I read as many books as possible. 

I started getting more involved with the avalanche center as an observer, and that’s really where my education started. I quickly realized if you want to do work in the avalanche world or industry as a guide, you need some educational background. And so I started taking my level one, my level two. I enrolled in the Canadian Avalanche Association and had high-end courses meant for professional operators. It was a professional operator course. I did my level one up there. We went out at Kimberly into the Boulder mountains, where we spent seven days, and did my level one. And then, a few years later, I did my level two in 2009. 

A lot of people here in America are like, “You only have a level two.” But their level two course for this professional operators course was 30 days. So I spent six weeks in Canada. We started on the coast, and I drove 2,000 miles through Canada. Our first module started in Vancouver, and then modules two and three were out of Golden in the Rogers Pass area.

That is a pass-fail course, and you take a test. It was pretty cool. In their terrain assessment, you get flown in a helicopter into a mountain range you’ve never been to, and your instructor pulls out a map and asks you to take them there. And that’s all they say to you for the rest of the day. Your decisions on getting to that point are all graded-nothing about the snowpack, nothing about the history. And so you’ve got to kind of make your assessment. I ended up not making it to where you’re supposed to go because I thought it was a little too dangerous, and it ended up working out.

I came back to Utah after that all fired up as a professional with the Canadian Avalanche Association.  I called Bruce Tremper and asked for a forecasting job. Bruce said good luck, but there are none of those jobs. He sent me over Craig Gordon’s way, and I started the Know Before You Go program and did basic avalanche awareness to scout groups, middle schools, and high schools. That’s really where my career started with Utah Avalanche Center.

Pitt Grewe: (8:33) So let’s jump into that a little bit. So you were a major driving force and a key player in the Know Before You Go program. The program has become a national, and maybe worldwide, program to introduce people to avalanche education and best practices and dangers. It pulled in lots of resources from the professional ski and snowboard world for this, and it’s  become a fantastic program.

Tell me quickly how you created the Know Before You Go program? Did you see it evolve into what it’s become?

Trent Meisenheimer: (9:28) Those are all great questions. The Know Before You Go program started in the early 2000s with an accident down off of Timpanogos. A group of snowboarders was hiking up one of the largest avalanche paths. They’re out of Aspen Grove on high or extreme avalanche danger day, and at the end of the day, when the dust settled, three of them were completely buried and their bodies were 20 feet deep. They didn’t get them out until the springtime because they weren’t wearing avalanche transceivers and they didn’t have probes or shovels, and the search and rescue groups just couldn’t find them.

Bruce Tremper and Craig Gordon were the founders of Know Before You Go. They saw an opportunity for avalanche forecasting. People don’t know about it. These guys didn’t even know there was an avalanche forecast. How do we get our message out to more people? And that’s that was the Know Before You Go. A year later, they made the video and came up with a PowerPoint program. I can’t remember exactly how many schools they visited, but it was a lot. People got exposed to Know Before You Go, and that just stayed the same. It evolved every year with some new shots and some new PowerPoint material. We got into more schools, but that same video had been used for almost a decade.

I started with the UAC by doing a lot of video work with snow pits and capturing avalanches on film. Paul Digle, the director of the friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, got a grant from the International Snowmobile Manufacturer Association. He got $15,000 to make an educational video directed to sledders. Paul asked if I wanted to make the video. I was young and excited. I said absolutely. Off I went making this film in 2014 The reason I bring that up is, that was the film that made us realize we could do Know Before You Go. That video was called Knowledge As Powder, and it was a little bit cheesy. I watch it now, and I have a good laugh but a lot of good information in it. The following season we decided to tackle redoing Know Before You Go and make it what it is today. I’m pretty honored to have been a part of the creation of that program. It just wasn’t me.

There was the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. They had a pivotal role in helping create this by lending technical support. Red Bull Media House, Sherpas Cinema, Brain Farm are a few of the companies that helped support it. And I would say a big shout out to Travis Rice because he was nice enough to come on board and give me some feedback. He makes some of the most incredible snowboard films in the world. Today, it’s in 35 countries worldwide and in 11 different languages. The program showed to about 16,000 new students and people each year here in Utah and Colorado. And yeah, it’s just been a roller coaster in fun time working with this project.

Pitt Grewe: (13:00) It’s a great program. It’s just the reach that it’s able to get, especially in years like this where we’ve seen such a huge increase in outdoor recreation use this past summer through the pandemic. We expect those same trends to follow into the winter, and there’ll be a lot of new users exploring the backcountry for the first time. A program like Know Before You Go sets the standard and gives a good base for them to start recreating responsibly and safely in the backcountry. Now, of course, it’ll hopefully lead to further education and certifications as people get more involved in backcountry recreation in the wintertime. But the Know Before You Go is a great program that is helping bring awareness and educate people. 

Trent Meisenheimer: (13:49) Can I add one more thing? 

Pitt Grewe: (13:50) Yes.

Trent Meisenheimer: (13:51) Speaking a little more to Know Before You Go, and new users this year, we created an online learning module for just Know Before You Go. If you go to kbyg.org, you can get our first module. It will take you about 45 minutes. It’s a 30-minute video with a few slides and a quiz at the end. And then, we have five more online learning modules that are free and based on the five points. In total, there are probably two to four hours, depending on how fast you want to go through the material.

Pitt Grewe: (14:38) Not to sound too much like a fanboy, but I highly recommend it to not just new users, but experienced users. I’ve been backcountry skiing for about 25 years. Growing up here in Utah, I have gone through some of these modules, and it’s just a great refresher at the beginning of the season. These are the points I need to remember as I’m going into my ski season this year. There’s some knowledge that may have been archived in the back of my brain and brought forward. So even for experienced users, it’s just a great reviewer program, and it can be beneficial.

Trent Meisenheimer: (15:14) It’s just like reading your favorite avalanche book every fall.

Pitt Grewe: (15:18) A few weeks ago, our first storm arrived, and it looked like a great start to our ski season this year. People started coming out. It helped to get the ski resorts open and provide a nice little base. Here we are during an avalanche awareness week, and we’ve not seen new snow in a long time since that storm. Maybe a few flurries here and there. So avalanche awareness week is always the first week of December, right before going into the holiday season. What does that mean going into this holiday ski season? We haven’t had any more snow since then, and it’s been this high pressure. What, as a forecast center, are you worried about or expecting or talking about? 

Trent Meisenheimer: (16:06) Right now, we have generally safe avalanche conditions. If you pulled up the forecast this morning at utahavalanchecenter.org you see that the avalanche forecast is low. And that’s because we have this great early season snow, but now it’s just been sitting around. The biggest thing I’d want people to know going into the season, especially once we get more snow, is that we will have some slopes that are completely safe. Those look like bare dirt right now. And the skiing or riding is probably not going to be very good on those slopes. What that’s going to do is force people into the areas where there is the old snow or the snow that’s been sitting around for the past two weeks. Those are going to be the areas that are very dangerous because of the shaded areas or the slopes that are holding their old snow.

That snow has grown very weak over the past few weeks. For us to get an avalanche, we need a slope steep enough; something 30 degrees or steeper. We need a weak layer, which we have. It’s everywhere right now in our mountains, pretty much. Any slope that there’s snow on has grown weak. We don’t have a slab of snow, and that’s what we’re waiting for. Maybe this weekend, we’re expected to get a shot of snow. That’ll be the start of our slab. And then we need a trigger. A trigger can be a skier, a boarder, a rider, explosives, heavy snowfall or rain. Cornices falling on the slopes are all triggers. We’re going to have the perfect setup for human triggered avalanches once we get snow. Our message at the UAC is going to be we need to stick to just low angle terrain. Once we get a slab, it is going to be dangerous. Human triggered avalanches will be likely. And really, the only way we can avoid getting caught in avalanches is to be in low angle terrain out in the mountains or on slopes that are bare dirt. But the hard part about the slopes is that once it snows we can’t remember which slopes had the old snow. I think it will come back to just keeping our angles low being mellow for the time being. Respect mother nature and the snowpack. Keeping to those low angle slopes will be key. 

Pitt Grewe: (18:46) These are great tips for anybody listening and anybody looking to get some skiing done over the holiday season when they’ve got a break from work or school. While we’re all anxious for the ski powder, we just gotta do it responsibly and safely. Utah’s pretty unique in that you can have a full career in the avalanche world. There’s only a select amount of states across the country that you can do that or the world. It’s pretty hard to have an avalanche career in Costa Rica. But here in Utah, it’s unique. Our snow is the greatest on earth, and it attracts some of the best and brightest in the avalanche forecasting world to work here. What is unique about the avalanche forecasting community in Utah? 

Trent Meisenheimer: (19:48)  We’re sitting up here in the sunshine right across the street from Alta ski area. And that was the birthplace of avalanche science and mitigation. It all started with Mani Atwater and Bink Snell, who pioneered our future. And I just think what’s unique about being here in Utah is many experienced people, both men and women, really hard-working people. I find that experience, their knowledge and wisdom, and the time they’ve spent in the mountains to be very motivating to me. I think that’s unique. The history we have, especially if you just look at the history of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Back to the mining days up here.  Our culture in these canyons is all about avalanches and the science that goes behind them. I find that very interesting and motivating.

Pitt Grewe: (20:50) The UAC has great professionals but then you meet somebody who works for a state agency like UDOT that is an incredible avalanche resource and professional. You’d never think that a person working on highways and roads would have a position where you spend your days in the mountains looking at snow and skiing and riding the snow. It’s a fascinating career path, in my opinion. I think Utah is a premier spot for somebody interested in becoming an avalanche professional to come out, cut their teeth, get some experience, and learn from mentors. Utah has a great pool of professionals and a network of fantastic people.

Trent Meisenheimer: (21:41) It’s not just the UAC. You mentioned UDOT, but it’s also the avalanche offices at Alta and Snowbird. Even the Park City Canyon side, which is now all operated by Vail, those organizations have the person at the top, and the people just under him, have vast knowledge and experience. To spend a couple of days, even if you’re a rookie patroller, and get a couple of days out with those people. It’s an amazing experience and a great opportunity to learn a lot about snow. It extends outside of ski areas. Our guiding services in Utah are some of the most experienced. And the coolest thing is we all have each other’s backs. We’re all out here trying to stay safe and understand the avalanche snow conditions.

Pitt Grewe: (22:41) I agree with you. As I ski in other places, I’ve always been reminded of the great resources we have with Utah’s avalanche community. I have access to so much information when researching a ski trip or a ski day in Utah. And then you find yourself going someplace else that doesn’t necessarily have that community or network, and you’re searching for information. It’s a huge benefit of being here in Utah. To wrap up, I want to ask why outdoor recreation is important to you and your life here in Utah?

Trent Meisenheimer: (23:19) That is an awesome question. For me, going to the mountains is something that I truly love. I love just being in them. I don’t need to always be doing the radest lines or skiing or riding. I’m very happy with walking along a road that’s snow-packed. I find joy in all of it. I find the mountain scenery is beautiful. I enjoy the people. I get to go out with new people that I meet and be a part of this culture. I’m honored to be where I am in my career. It’s nice to have the opportunity to visit the backcountry so easily. I live nine minutes from the mouth of Little Cottonwood and six minutes from Big Cottonwood. I love rock climbing or whitewater kayaking. I find the outdoors is a great place to be. It’s good to disconnect from the digital world and get away from your computer and come to nature. I find it valuable just to have conversations around a campfire. I think those are some of the greatest memories of my life. 

Pitt Grewe: (24:40) It can never be overstated the power of outdoor recreation and the access we have in Utah. Is there any message you want to pass on to the Utah business community from the UAC? 

Trent Meisenheimer: (25:04) I would say 2020 has been a very different year for many of us. It’s had its ups and downs and challenges. There’s the coronavirus, an earthquake, and a lot of financial stuff going on. Our election was very dramatic. I would say many of us are probably chomping at the bit to get outside to heal or visit nature in whatever way you want. But let’s not forget that we’re moving into what could be a very dangerous winter in the backcountry.  I would urge all the listeners if you’re going to head out in the backcountry to have a beacon shovel and a probe. We’re going to need to tone it back once the snow hits this week. We’re definitely gonna see avalanches. I’m very worried about the number of fatalities in Utah increasing this year based on how stoked we are to get out and ski, ride, or sled whatever mode of transportation. Tone it down and recreate responsibly. Stick to those low angle slopes once it snows. That is my biggest piece of advice. 

Pitt Grewe: (26:09) Thank you, Trent. I appreciate it. And appreciate your time today to come up here and have a conversation. For more information, please Google the Utah Avalanche Center. It’ll take you to the resources that you need. The forecast comes out daily. Start to learn more about the science behind it and the forecasting process. Take the time to prepare, and you’ll have a great safe winter full of great experiences in the outdoors. Thanks again, Trent, for joining me today 

Trent Meisenheimer: (27:05) You’re welcome. 

Pitt Grewe: (27:06) And everybody have a great day. Thanks. 


Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.