The Avalanche Forecaster: Craig Gordon
What I Do:
“I’m not really a tied-to-a-desk kind of guy,” says Craig Gordon, a 17-year veteran of Utah’s Avalanche Forecasting Center, the country’s flagship resource for studying and predicting avalanches. He writes exhaustive daily snow reports that cover the Wasatch range and some of the best ski areas in the nation — Alta, Snowbird, Park City. Every winter he spends three days a week ski touring in the Uinta Mountains and three days in the Wasatch. “Good forecasting is about catching both the glaring red flags and the little inconsistencies that cause avalanches,” he says. “Getting on the snow helps me recognize a snowpack’s nuances.”
Some avalanche forecasters spend years in college studying snow science. Gordon owes his education to time in the field. Before coming to Utah’s Avalanche Forecasting Center, he spent a decade patrolling at Brighton resort and two seasons heli-ski guiding in the Uintas. “That’s where I learned to read the snow. It also let me observe human nature: what snow science people understand and how they apply that while skiing, snowboarding, or snowmobiling,” Gordon says. When he first became a snow professional in the early 1990s, he says few people in the backcountry understood avalanches.
The Two Slides That Changed His Life:
Two deadly slides separated by a year changed his approach to forecasting. The first struck in 2002. On a clear day following a heavy snowstorm, a pack of 12 snowboarders, the oldest 19 and the youngest 16, slipped out of Brighton’s side gates to build jumps in the backcountry. Shortly after leaving the resort, two snowboarders crossed onto a 50-degree slope. The snow splintered and a slab two- to eight-feet deep and 300-feet wide tore from the mountainside. Both kids were buried. Neither they, nor their peers, had avalanche safety equipment. By the time Gordon arrived to investigate, both kids had asphyxiated. “What I’ve found with accidents is they don’t happen out of the blue: a weak snowpack, a substantial storm, natural slides, then boom, a fatality,” Gordon says. “The Brighton slide, just outside the resort, felt personal. It drove home for me that we had to change something in our forecasts to save lives.”
The catalyzing event came a year later, on December 26. “We were having just this epic Christmas storm. It was all the resorts could do to stay open. You couldn’t even get around Salt Lake City,” Gordon remembers. During peak storm, three unrelated groups went to ski in and around the most notorious avalanche paths in Utah: Elk Point, off of Mt. Timpanogos. As they spread out along the slope, natural avalanches began peeling off the upper mountain, generating a massive slide that buried six young men in enough debris to cover 22 football fields. Three lived. “One body was found a day later, another a week later, the third not until Easter Sunday,” Gordon remembers. “Nobody should have been on that slope that day.” After that slide, Gordon created Know Before You Go, a revamped educational program that simplifies forecast messages and targets teens and young adults, those most likely to die in a slide. “If you live on the coast, you learn about tides,” he says. “We brought that same basic understanding to the mountains: Avalanches fit patterns. Awareness saves lives.” –Kyle Dickman