Craig Gordon: Helping Others Understand the Danger

Craig Gordon: Helping Others Understand the Danger

Tom Kelly

By Tom Kelly \ January 16 2024

The Christmas blizzard of 2003 still ranks as one of the biggest winter storms in Utah’s history – legendary enough to have its own Wikipedia page. It dumped four feet of snow in the valley and upwards of twice that in the mountains, closing resorts. But it brought tragedy with it. On Dec. 26, 2003 an entire mountainside of snow broke off the flanks of Mt. Timpanogos, roaring down out of the clouds towards a dozen skiers, riders, hikers, and snowshoers. Five were buried, with three not making it home that evening.


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Just three years into his forecaster career with the Utah Avalanche Center, skier Craig Gordon was deeply troubled by what he had seen. The victims simply didn’t know that their playground for the day just above the Aspen Grove trailhead was in a massive avalanche run out. So he decided to do something about it, creating the now ubiquitous educational program Know Before You Go.

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A group of skiers gets some on-snow education from Craig Gordon

What Gordon and others realized was that we all lived amidst snow-filled mountains, but there was no way to get the message of snow safety to youth and teens. In its first season, Know Before You Go reached over 10,000 students in local middle and high schools across Utah. Today, it’s the staple introductory snow safety program not just in Utah but across the nation and even the world.

 

“How many ski days do I get in a year? I just count the days I miss.”

 

It’s just one of the many programs Utah Avalanche Center manages to help keep us safe. Whether you’re an avid backcountry enthusiast or limit yourself to in-bounds action, UAC has education and information to help keep you safe.


A New Jersey native who found his way out to Utah to attend college and soon found himself working in snow safety at Brighton and as a heli-ski guide. He joined UAC in 2000. Today, he’s part of a deeply experienced team and is known around the state as the guy who makes avalanche safety education fun.

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Craig Gordon and friends carve some powder eights in a snowfield.

This episode of Last Chair is quintessential Craig Gordon – complete with stories, humor and emotion. Dig in … it’s a fun one! Here’s just a sampling.


Craig, how do you view the services that Utah Avalanche Center offers?

We're best known for our forecasting – we're your one-stop shop, Utah Avalanche Center.org. But forecasting is just a segment of education. And to me, really, the forecasts are an educational tool. Any time I have the opportunity to share knowledge and to throw an anecdote or two and maybe throw some institutional knowledge and wisdom in, along with some tongue-in-cheek humor, yeah, now, this is sort of where the rubber hits the road. To me, it's all about education. And the more well-informed our user public is, the more they can get out of the Utah Avalanche Center forecast. The forecast is really designed in sort of a tiered approach, from beginner to intermediate, novice to expert to uber expert. You can gain something out of reading the forecast day-to-day and reading it each day. You get to know the characters in the snowpack. And you know, the last thing you want to do is open up the middle of this book, this novel and try to figure out who the characters are. So I always advise people, even on the days that you're not planning on going out, definitely take heed, check out the forecast, and see what the snow is doing. And then, when you do get a day off, or you're making your travel plans, you'll be that much better informed. So, really, to me, education is where the rubber hits the road. For us, that's the big ticket item. And that is not only in our forecasts, that is in our outreach and our classes, our backcountry 101, our basic avalanche classes, our rescue classes. It all revolves around education.

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In the debut season of Know Before You Go, Craig Gordon stands in front of a jam-packed classroom to bring avalanche safety education to the masses for the first time. 

The Christmas storm of 2003 brought snow, but it also brought tragedy.

Yeah, oh my gosh, that time frame right around Christmas of 2003 brought an epic storm by all standards – historic storm rolls bigger than last year. As a matter of fact, this the Christmas storm of 2003 has its own Wikipedia reference. The storm rolls in right before Christmas and just blasts the Salt Lake Valley, Provo, Ogden. There are 30 inches of snow in downtown Salt Lake, several hundred thousand people are without power. I remember it's all I can do to get to the foothills to go skiing. It is complete mayhem just to go a mile or two. So there were three groups that had been riding at Sundance inside the ski resort boundary. The resort closes down, and these three individual groups – they don't even know each other – they ride up the road, and they're at the Aspen Grove trailhead, which is underneath one of the largest avalanche paths in Utah that funnels off Mount Timpanogos. Of course, you're going to go hike for the freshies, right? And no one's wearing avalanche transceivers, no shovels, no probes, none of the appropriate rescue gear. And as three separate groups are hiking up, one natural avalanche peels off from about 3,000 plus vertical feet above off the ridge in the clouds. So everything is just is just chaos as one slide, then sympathetically triggers two others. And now, instead of having just one football field, you have several football fields of snow crashing down from up above. 

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Some spring corn snow provides a little fun for Craig Gordon. 

I know even 20 years later, it’s still emotional. But you chose to do something about it?

It was so glaringly apparent how dangerous the conditions were. And again, just trying to move around in the valley, it's like it's all I can do to get to the mountains. So I'm going to the mountains on its terms, and it doesn't even want me there, you know. So this is not, you know, kind of a soft, fuzzy kind of place to be right now. It's very harsh. It's very wicked. That night, I looked my wife in the eye, and I said, ‘I am going to do everything in my power that not another family, not another partner, not another parent has to experience the tragedy of what could be a preventable avalanche accident.’I said, ‘Well, I am going to create a program where we go talk to kids in schools and middle schools and high schools.’ (My boss Bruce Tremper) says, ‘You put it together, you find the money, and it's yours.’ And I thought, ‘Man, you just challenged a go-getter overachiever who grew up in New Jersey. Man, I got this. At the time, nothing like this existed. There was nothing that was fun, that had energy to it, and that could resonate with teens.


What was the reception like when you launched Know Before You Go into Utah schools?

One of our very first talks was in front of 1,600 kids. And it was remarkable. It wasn't like some soft rollout. It was like you hit the ground running with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, and here we go, you know? And man, for that kind of crowd you had to have a touchpoint with everybody in the audience. And that meant giving out a thousand times the energy that was coming back. That was the secret of the success of the program. 

 

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Did you reach a lot of kids with KBYG?

In our first year, I thought, man, if we could reach 5,000 kids, that would be remarkable. And the first year the thing took off like a rocket. We talked to 12,000 kids, and in the second year, we talked to 18,000 kids. By the start of the third year, we were able to get Know Before You Go embedded as an elective in health and phys ed in middle schools. And then everybody started coming on board. The Park City schools were awesome to get us embedded early on. The snowbelt community schools knew that this was very important.

 

About Utah Avalanche Center

Whether you ride the backcountry or stay within Utah’s lift-served resorts, the Utah Avalance Center (UAC) is there to help you stay safe. UAC was established in 1980 as a collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service. Today, it provides daily avalanche forecasting to advise snowsport enthusiasts before they head out into the mountains. Its educational programs, like Know Before You Go, provide vital knowledge to help build awareness of the dangers of avalanches and how to enjoy the outdoors safely.

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About Know Before You Go

Developed after the Christmas 2003 avalanche tragedy, Know Before You Go has reached millions with the simple message of Get the Forecast, Get the Gear, Get the Training. Its online course materials let you get the education from home and is also available to the avalanche safety community worldwide to educate others.

 

Transcript

 

Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| Craig Gordon, thank you for joining us on Last Chair. It's really something to get you off the snow.


Craig Gordon: |00:00:05| Well, it is indeed, Tom. It is my absolute honor to be here joining you. And, you know, you asked me how many ski days I get in a year. I just count the days I miss. So I took the day off so I could be with you. So we could be grounded. And so that we could have a nice little chat together.


Tom Kelly: |00:00:23| You know, last year, about this time, I went with your colleague Drew Hardesty. We went up Guardsman from the big Cottonwood |00:00:30| side, and we did our podcast in a nice snow pit that Drew dug. A little more civilized. We're down here at Kiln at Gateway in the recording studio today, so I appreciate you coming in. But seriously, you are on snow, like, almost every day.


Craig Gordon: |00:00:45| Like every day. Yeah. So this is like a, you know, sort of a gentleman's podcast. I love it. This facility is amazing. The studio has got just this nice soft feel to it. So thanks for having me. It's an absolute honor.


Tom Kelly: |00:00:59| Well, it is really |00:01:00| great to have you. Let's talk a little bit about year-to-date. A little bit lighter snowfall than last year. But year-to-date light snowfall. But actually, the resort skiing is really good. But in a year like this what are the things that you look for? What are the dangers you look for in the backcountry?


Craig Gordon: |00:01:14| Yeah, I think this year, um, as opposed to last year at this time. And, you know, I'm, I'm just I love history. And even though I can't balance my checkbook, I love the history of snow and the dates and the numbers, and |00:01:30| I'm a geek for that kind of stuff. And I was looking back kind of into my cerebral hard drive at this time last year. And we're just coming out of this epic, epic New Year's storm. Avalanche warnings are in effect. It is snowing to beat the band. You know, we're several atmospheric rivers into just an amazing snow year, and most resorts are right at the century mark for mid-mountain snow depth. So it's unreal. And as I always say, |00:02:00| you know, here in Utah, it ain't the snow, it's the water. And it's really the water that gives us that nice thick base. And then, of course, you know, once the cold snow gets here, well, that's when the party starts. But for our purposes, this year is a little bit different. We had that beautiful storm on December 1st through 3rd, Upper Little Cottonwood Canyon, parts of Upper Big Cottonwood Canyon, 5 to 6 inches of water.


Craig Gordon: |00:02:28| And that equated to about |00:02:30| 50 to 60 inches of snow – Park City side a little bit leaner. Some of our other neighbors, you know, maybe half that amount. But, you know, Tom, what it boils down to is that we always get grade snow here. It always turns on to winter. Winter always happens during winter. In Utah right now, it's slightly low tide. And so what I think about, even though the avy hazard might not be elevated or it might not be super sketchy right now, there are |00:03:00| so many other hazards to think about, stumps and logs and rocks and that kind of thing. And also in low tide years, low snow years, you got to think about your approaches and your exits. And so I try to put my ski tour together so that it's seamless, it's quick, it's easy. And if something goes sideways, I'm going to be able to get myself out of where I got myself into. And, you know, that's a big part of the day is figuring out the in and and |00:03:30| the out and then the fun in between. You know.


Tom Kelly: |00:03:33| I imagine that a lot of people, when they're doing their plan, the last thing they think about is what my exit will be.


Craig Gordon: |00:03:38| Oh, yeah. And, you know, I'll tell you my day that starts at two in the morning and sometimes ends at like six, seven, eight at night. I've got a lot in between. And whether it's my own personal life or appointments like, you know, meeting folks like you and chatting or other media types of events, I can't be |00:04:00| late to stuff, you know? And I also have got that responsibility not only to myself, but also to my community and my family.


Tom Kelly: |00:04:08| We're going to talk about Utah Avalanche Center here in a minute, but let's go back to last year again with that epic snowfall. It actually, while there were some fatalities, uh, both ski and snowboard and or and snowmobile. Yeah, it was actually, all things considered, it was a relatively safer year than we've seen. Sure.


Craig Gordon: |00:04:25| And it's counterintuitive because, I mean, more snow always |00:04:30| equals more avalanches. But what we realize is that the avalanches that we're dealing with are mostly storm snow related. Now, the caveat to that, Tom, is that we had several dozen atmospheric rivers last year. And what that means is that it's this big firehose of moisture. And once that thing turns on, you know, weather is a lot like people. It likes the path of least resistance. So once that pattern was carved out, each |00:05:00| successive storm that latched on to that. Man, it was just this, uh, just this train of storms, fire hose, the state. And eventually, one of those storms is going to reveal a weak layer or an inconsistency in one of those layers, and we're going to see avalanches. But it's much more predictable than a lean year where we go long periods of time without any snow. That snowpack gets weak and sugary, and |00:05:30| then once the winter switch gets turned on, then avalanche conditions get really sketchy. So for me, for a forecaster, for a recreationist, and a user of the product, I always think the lean years, especially when it's cold and dry in between storms, those are the sketchiest.


Tom Kelly: |00:05:47| Let's go back to that firm atmospheric river we had there on a few weeks ago, on last year, and he talked a little bit about it. But I think for those of us, uh, uh, civilians, let me call us, uh, that was a new word for us |00:06:00| or a new combination of words last year. I know as a forecaster, you've probably been using it for years. But what's an atmospheric river?


Craig Gordon: |00:06:06| Yes. So it is this big stream of moisture that comes out of the Hawaiian Islands. And, you know, it's got a lot of geographic features to get around. You know, it's got to kind of maneuver its way through and underneath the Sierra, and it's got to hold together, and it's, you know, goes through all of this desert. And then it finally gets to Utah. But |00:06:30| an atmospheric river, a single atmospheric river has 18 times the available moisture as the Mississippi River. So like, we'll try to wrap our brains around that. Now, math is not my strong suit, but it would seem to me like that is an awful lot of moisture to throw into the atmosphere. And once this thing gets turned on, the beauty of the flow last year was it collided with cold air. Now, oftentimes the atmospheric river can just be |00:07:00| warm and moist. But last year it got together with some cold air and kaboom! I mean, you felt it in Park City as those storms were creeping up Provo Canyon. They were slamming into that cold air and Park City and truly Deer Valley, Park City, the Wasatch Back, everybody got invited to this party. It's the first time in about 15 years or so that I can remember of having actual bottomless days inside the ski resort |00:07:30| boundary. I mean, there was really no reason to even go touring when you could parlay all the hard work that the women and the men of the ski patrol and get going long before we ever even get into the parking lot.


Tom Kelly: |00:07:44| It just really, I just think it back right now. I do tend to think about the paths I shoveled between the barn and the house for our cat. That's kind of my first memory, but beyond that, there was some amazing skiing and riding last year. So we have learned about the atmospheric river. Let's talk |00:08:00| now about Utah Avalanche Center. You are part of a cadre of forecasters and just gurus of the snow, and we all appreciate that. And I think as Utah skiers and riders, we probably take for granted a little bit this amazing service we have. But give us a little for one on UAC and what it means to all of those who like to party in the backcountry.


Craig Gordon: |00:08:23| Yeah, yeah. Well, UAC, number one, I work with the most amazing cast |00:08:30| of highly talented individuals, and being part of the UAC is not only a privilege, it is my absolute honor because not only do I work with amazing people but I get to interact with my backcountry family. So the people that we forecast for skiers, boarders, sledders, snowmobilers, hunters, hikers, extreme snow anglers, no matter what we're doing on the snow, this is not just our community, |00:09:00|, this is our backcountry family. And as such, I want to treat my backcountry family with the utmost respect. I want to give them the information that's critical that they can go out. Enjoy the greatest snow on Earth. Have a blast. You know, high-five at the trailhead or at the bottom of the lift or wherever they wind up at. At the end of the day, they're coming home safely to their family. So, you know, that's the overarching |00:09:30| mantra and reach of the UAC. And, you know, we are into this for 40-plus years. And there are a lot of people before me that help to, you know, really lay the groundwork for this help many layers of pavement to get to where we are. And, you know, without the Pat Lambros of the world and Bruce Trempers of the world, and so many just remarkable individuals who committed themselves |00:10:00|, devoted themselves to this community. Without them, we wouldn't be where we are now. And indeed, we are the flagship avalanche center not only of the country, but, you know, it's a global thing, and I am more than proud to be part of that.


Tom Kelly: |00:10:16| Well, a lot of us as skiers and riders, you know, we really look at UAC that way. We really look at you as being best of breed in everything you do. Can you run down the key areas of service, things like education and forecasting, and what are the different |00:10:30| aspects or elements that UAC provides to the public?


Craig Gordon: |00:10:33| Sure. Well, you know, I think we're best known for our forecasting and because we're your one-stop shop, Utah Avalanche Center.org. But, you know, forecasting is just a segment of education. And to me, really, the forecasts are an educational tool. And any time I have the opportunity to share knowledge and to throw an anecdote or two and maybe some institutional |00:11:00| knowledge and wisdom in, along with the mix and maybe some tongue-in-cheek humor. Yeah. Now, this is sort of where the rubber hits the road. So really, Tom, to me, it's all about education. And the more well-informed our user public is, the more they can get out of the Utah Avalanche Center forecast. And the forecast is really designed in sort of a tiered approach, you know, from beginner to intermediate to novice to expert |00:11:30| to, you know, Uber expert. You can gain something out of reading the forecast day to day and reading it each day. You get to know the characters in the snowpack. And you know, the last thing you want to do is open up the middle of this book, this novel, you know, and try to figure out who the characters are. So I always advise people, even on the days that you're not planning on going out, definitely take heed, |00:12:00| check out the forecast, see what the snow is doing. And then, when you do get a day off or you're making your travel plans, you'll be that much better informed. So, really, to me, education that is where the rubber hits the road. For us, that's the big ticket item. And that is not only in our forecasts, that is in our outreach and our classes, our backcountry 101, our basic avalanche classes, our rescue classes. It all revolves around education.


Tom Kelly: |00:12:29| Let's |00:12:30| talk about the mobile app. And one of the things that I really like about it is you can open up the mobile app, which anybody can get, just download it from the respective app store, and you can look at the compass rose. And just to view the compass rose, you have a pretty good idea of what's going on. Tell us about yeah.


Craig Gordon: |00:12:44| Yeah, yeah. So you get you get the rose, which is your 30,000-foot view. If you are looking down on a mountain, you would see all aspects. And when I say aspect, I mean the orientation and the compass. So a north aspect |00:13:00| faces, you know, north um, south is going to be in the sun, you have east-west. But then also in those layers of the rose, you're going to have elevation bands. And within those elevation bands, and then the aspect, we'll color them in on a scale of 1 to 5. So green, yellow, um, orange, red and black, of course. So, on a scale of 1 to 5, that's going to correlate with what the danger is low, moderate, considerable, high, or extreme. |00:13:30| Now, when I take all of that into account, you know, the danger rating actually isn't a linear rating. And as we increase in danger, that danger unto itself expands exponentially. So we go from 2 to 4, but then we don't add another 2 or 4 to that. It goes to 16 and to 32 and to 64. So, as we climb up that scale, the danger actually expands exponentially. |00:14:00| And the biggest piece of advice is to match that avalanche danger for the day and match the terrain with what the given danger is. There is always a place you can go, ride and play, and have a blast in the mountains. Even during times of elevated avalanche danger, it's a matter of knowing the kinds of slopes you can ride safely, the slope angle, and then what kind of terrain you need to avoid. And, of course, we take care of that. |00:14:30| One click, one stop. Utah. Aligncenter Aug.


Tom Kelly: |00:14:34| I like what you said about the scale is not linear. And let's talk about the moderate danger area. And, I think a lot of people might look at that and say, well, it's kind of right in the middle. So I think I'm probably okay. Yeah, but it doesn't really work that way, does it? Right.


Craig Gordon: |00:14:46| So moderate, you know, on the scale of 1 to 5 is, is the yellow, you know, it's the level two. And it's like I think of um, I think a yellow like with the traffic light, you know, now what you should be. Doing at a |00:15:00| yellow traffic light is pumping the brakes and slowing down, not gunning on the gas, you know, and I'm also thinking with a moderate avalanche danger, what kind of avalanche dragon am I dealing with? Is it just a shallow wind drift that, you know, I can manage with my terrain? Or like we see in shallow snow years, is it's something that has a low probability, but a high consequence where I could put a dozen sets of tracks on the slope, and |00:15:30| I go to put my 13th track on the slope, I find a little weakness in the snowpack. I collapse the snowpack. Humph! And now I'm staring down the barrel of a very scary avalanche. So I've got to know what kind of avalanche dragon I'm dealing with. And when we start to get into that category, and we know that we have what we call a persistent weak layer, that we've got strong snow above weak snow, then the best exit strategy is to totally avoid where that |00:16:00| dragon lives. And there is always plenty of terrain to go out and ride and have a blast and totally avoid that kind of hazard.


Tom Kelly: |00:16:09| We're talking a lot about the educational tools that are available here today, but I want to go back in time. Twenty years ago, sure, just in late December of this year and right day after Christmas in 2003, big tragedy near the Sundance Resort up in Aspen Grove. Tell us a little bit about that accident, and then we'll continue on from there to talk about what it |00:16:30| spawned in terms of further education.


Craig Gordon: |00:16:32| Yeah. Oh my gosh, that, um, that time frame right around Christmas of 2003 is an epic storm by all standards. Historic storm rolls bigger than last year. Oh yeah, it unto itself, you know, a one-shot deal that, as a matter of fact, this the Christmas storm of 2003 has its own Wikipedia, uh, reference. |00:17:00| And the reason it does, Tom, is that, number one, we had early-season snow in the mountains. And it's kind of, you know, teetering on on the edge. Anyway, the storm rolls in right before Christmas and just blasts the Salt Lake Valley. Provo, Ogden. I mean, there's 30 inches of snow in downtown Salt Lake, several hundred thousand people without power. I remember it's all I can do to get to the foothills to go skiing. |00:17:30| Um, you know, foothills above Wasatch. And, I mean, it is just complete mayhem just to go a mile or two. It's taking you, like, 45 minutes. Everything is a mess. So that's the setup and. Yeah, indeed. Um, resorts, it's all they can do to stay open because the weather is so off the hook. Winds are blasting 60 to 80 miles an hour, gusting near 100.


Craig Gordon: |00:17:56| It's snowing two, three inches an hour. And we're getting |00:18:00| thunder snow. Right. So we're getting lightning and thunder. It's crazy. There's power outages. Several resorts decide. I mean, it's just like it's impossible to run. So there's three groups that had been riding at Sundance inside the ski resort boundary. You know, fair enough. The resort closes down and these three individual groups, um, counting over a dozen people, they don't even know each other. They ride up the road, and they're at the |00:18:30| Aspen Grove trailhead, which is underneath one of the largest avalanche paths in Utah that funnels off Mount Timpanogos. And, you know, it's storming to beat the band, and they run into other groups that are out playing in the run out of this giant avalanche path you can't see up above you. Of course, you're going to go hike for the Freshies, right? And no one's wearing avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes, none of the appropriate |00:19:00| rescue gear. And as three separate groups are hiking up, one natural avalanche peels off from about 3000 plus vertical feet above off the ridge in the clouds.


Tom Kelly: |00:19:14| Really? In the clouds?


Craig Gordon: |00:19:15| Yeah. Because, Tom, it is it is storming so hard you can hardly see like out in front of your hand. So everything is just is is just chaos as one slide, then |00:19:30| sympathetically triggers two others. And now, instead of having just one football field, you have several football fields of snow crashing down from up above. At any given time, there are multiple people who are caught, buried, spit back out. The next wave of snow comes, it buries those people, spits more out. And then finally, as the third slide, um, slams into the crew, um, below the. Us settles and |00:20:00| three young men are missing.


Tom Kelly: |00:20:03| And they had no gear.


Craig Gordon: |00:20:04| So there's no gear, there's an avalanche warning, there's high danger. And it's like, so now what happens? And there's a young man who's out snowshoeing with his young family, a couple of, uh, you know, just barely kind of walking around on the snow, not realizing what's up above |00:20:30| them, frantic calls to 911. Search ensues. Multiple agencies. And, you know, at the end of the day, it is just a remarkable, tragic event.


Tom Kelly: |00:20:43| Were you on that, uh, rescue?


Craig Gordon: |00:20:45| I was not on the rescue. I went down several days later, um, after the dust had settled after actually, at the time, the director of the Utah Avalanche Center, Bruce Tremper, went down the next day to investigate it, and everybody |00:21:00| else sort of had their hands full everywhere else. So, you know, we're trying to manage that and, and, you know, manage the media side of things and kind of warn people, hey, this is what's going on. It is very dangerous out there. So we really had to pool our resources. And, you know, at that time, Tom UAC is a staff of about 5 or 6 people, you know. So I mean, we're lean and mean, you know, and we figured, no, |00:21:30| you know, Bruce goes down there, he does the investigation. We'll hang tight and continue to get the message out.


Tom Kelly: |00:21:38| Yeah, quite a tragedy. We're going to take a quick show break. And I know there was an outcome of this that's really important to you in terms of the education part. And we'll come to that right after the break. Thanks for joining us. You're listening to Craig Gordon here on Last Chair. 


Tom Kelly: We're back on Last Chair with Craig Gordon from the Utah Avalanche Center. And it's quite an emotional |00:22:00| experience. Twenty years ago, with the tragic death of three young men in the canyon right below Mount Timpanogos, right above Aspen Grove, right as as as you guys thought about it and got together and did debriefs on this. What was your take in terms of why they were there? What can we do? How can we increase the education? What was going on in the minds of you who are professional avalanche |00:22:30| safety experts and forecasters in terms of what you could do to help prevent this in the future? Yeah.


Craig Gordon: |00:22:36| Well, you know, it was so glaringly apparent how dangerous the conditions were. And again, just trying to move around in the valley, it's like it's all I can do to get to the mountains. So I'm going to the mountains on its terms, and it doesn't even want me there, you know. So this is not, you know, kind of a soft, fuzzy kind of place to be |00:23:00| right now. It's very harsh. It's very wicked. And as we started to get debriefed as, as a staff, um, after the December 26th accident. That night, I looked my wife in the eye, and I said, I am going to do everything in my power that not another family, not another partner, |00:23:30| not another parent has to experience the tragedy of what could be a preventable avalanche accident. And, you know, and she was like, well, what are you going to do? I said, well, I am going to create a program where we go talk to kids in schools and middle schools and high schools. And she said, Craig, do you have any idea how big this project is? I said, yes, it's going to be colossal, and I'm just the guy to do it. Well, you are, thanks, man. And |00:24:00|, you know, a few days later, we did do a debrief with Bruce, and it was heavy, and it was powerful. And I brought up the point of, well, hey, Bruce, you know, I mean, I'm only 3 or 4 years into my avalanche center career.


Craig Gordon: |00:24:20| What about has any thought ever gone into just like, going into middle schools and high schools? And Bruce says, well, nobody |00:24:30| wants to hear some dry, boring person talk about avalanche as a dry and boring man. No, no, I'm talking rock and roll. You know, let's have a dynamic program with a video. And and he says, you know what? You put it together, you find the money, and it's yours. And I thought, man, you just challenged a go-getter overachiever who grew up in New Jersey. Man, this, I got this. And you know, Tom, |00:25:00| at the time, nothing like this existed. There was nothing that was, um, that was fun and that had energy to it. And that could resonate with teens, you know. And Bruce was absolutely right. It was sort of dry, and it was sciency, and it was boring, and it was very uncool. And I said, well, let's turn this around. Let's make it super cool to be knowledgeable about |00:25:30| snow and be knowledgeable about avalanches. And let's address the guy in the back of the room who is just like me, who would get bored with anything. And let's make it dynamic and let's make it fun. And as I started crafting this, the first thing that we had to do was, well, we had to put a video together. You needed a hook. And Tom, you go back 20 years ago and there are no iPhones and there are no GoPros. |00:26:00| And the amount of video footage, avalanche related video footage is, is very rare.


Craig Gordon: |00:26:08| So, fortunately, I made a great connection with TGR and Teton Gravity Research actually had some great footage. They believed in the project, Backcountry.com came on board, and all of a sudden, man, we're a powerhouse, and we've got the state of Utah to back this, |00:26:30| um, uh, Division of Natural Resources and State Parks who believed in avalanche education. Fred Haise, who headed up that division at that time, knew that avalanche education helped to save lives. And so, you know, Tom, we had a lot of people who believed in the program. We put the video together. We had a PowerPoint that went along with it, and man, we were ready to hit the ground running. And so this is the first time that |00:27:00| multimedia presentations went to schools. And, you know, just to be able to sell it was really quite a Herculean feat. But I found a, uh, assistant principal at American Fork, uh, Middle School, and he knew some of the young men who had passed away. And he knew the hurt and he knew the feeling, and he said, no, |00:27:30| we got to get this into our schools. He helped me to shepherd this into schools. And, Tom, one of our very first talks was in front of 1600 kids. And it was remarkable, man. It you know, it wasn't like some soft rollout. It was like you hit the ground running with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, and here we go, you know? And man, for that kind of crowd you had to touch, have |00:28:00| a touch point with everybody in the audience.


Craig Gordon: |00:28:02| And that meant giving out a thousand times the energy that was coming back. And really that was the secret of that of the success of the program. So in our first year, I thought, man, if we could. Reach 5000 kids. That would be remarkable. And the first year the thing took off like a rocket. We talked to 12,000 kids, and in the second year, we talked to 18,000 kids. And the start of the |00:28:30| third year, we were able to get know before you go embedded as an elective in health and phys ed in middle schools. And then everybody started coming on board. The Park City schools were awesome to get us embedded early on. The snowbelt community schools knew that this was very important. And anyone who did anything related to the snow, and that includes our great partners, the resorts statewide, who |00:29:00| realized that the more savvy, savvy everybody was, the less drain this would be on resources people would really get to understand at a basic level, this medium of snow and avalanches. So this wasn't something that was super technical or sciencey. It was fun. It was simple. There were a lot of metaphors. It was stuff that everybody could use. Like I said in the beginning of our conversation, skiers, boarders, hunters, hikers. No |00:29:30| matter what you're doing on the snow, you got to have avalanche education under your belt.


Tom Kelly: |00:29:34| Craig, the title is or the name of the program, Know Before You Go, is really pretty straightforward. Is there any story behind how you came up with that?


Craig Gordon: |00:29:41| You know, I think between Bruce and I, it was just like one of those epiphanies, and it was like, you know, what are we going to call this thing? And it was before truly before anybody sort of hijacked or pirated it. We kind of cornered the market. |00:30:00| You know, looking back on it, we probably should have had it patented and trademarked. But it's curious now that so many entities latch on to know before you go. But the beauty of it is kind of that metaphorical feature that know before you go, and it's a hook, and it pulls you in. And not only were we very aware of that here in this state, but as the program started to expand nationally |00:30:30| and kind of realized that that was the hook as well, um, the next likely place that it could go would be globally. And I had a good friend of mine from Snowbird who would spend her winters up here and then go to Chile and spend the winters in Chile. And she realized that, you know, avalanche education was non-existent in Argentina, in Chile, |00:31:00| down south. And really, she was the first one who helped me get the early rendition of know before you go into another language, into another country. And so, Tom, not only is this a locally made, locally played program that's been seen by over 300,000 Utahns, it's a national program. It's a global program in 40 countries and now translated into 11 languages. So it is just been a |00:31:30| remarkable, remarkable success. From simplicity comes success. And I know in my heart of hearts that this program has saved lives.


Tom Kelly: |00:31:40| Craig, as you look back, I'd love to get your reflections. It's been 20 years now since this incident, and since you and the team at USC came up with know before you go. As you look back on that, how does it make you feel that you've been able to bring this education? Do you see a difference out in the public today from where it was 20 years ago?


Craig Gordon: |00:31:59| Oh |00:32:00| yeah, 20 years ago. Tom, our best foot forward, our best efforts. We were reaching such a small piece of our community, such a small piece of the pie, and what know before you go did was it distilled a very complex medium and it repackaged it into something that was fun, that was learnable, that got people stoked. And that's that was really |00:32:30| the big success. So, yes, um, you know, it was at a time when just sort of everything came together, and it was a time that technology was changing, that awareness was changing, and the timing of all of that, plus the simplicity in the messaging, really led to the great success of this program.


Tom Kelly: |00:32:53| Let's talk about that messaging. And not to go into a full avalanche safety course here, but there are some really simple principles like get the forecast, get |00:33:00| the gear, get the education. What are the real principles of Know Before You Go?


Craig Gordon: |00:33:03| Yeah, yeah. So you know, you're you're you're getting the forecast. You're figuring out where you're going to go. But before that you know you're getting the gear. Avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes. Maybe avalanche airbags. You're, um, not only figuring out where you're going. You've got the gear, you're getting the education. You've got to have basic avalanche education under your belt. |00:33:30| It's just the rules of the road and that basic start from there. You're you're looking around. You're looking for clues to unstable snow. You're getting out of the way at the bottom of the slope. These simple things, Tom, if we don't have to be snow scientists. I mean, I've been in and out of snow for, you know, 37 years. And, I mean, I'm no snow scientist. I play one on TV, of course, but in |00:34:00| real life, you know, I just do this because I love what I do. I live what I love. I get to give back to my community, which is the biggest honor of my entire life, or maybe even several lives. And so really, the success for, for all of our avalanche education is this simplicity, because sometimes just the simple approach of having somebody pump the brakes and maybe double checking on the forecast |00:34:30| of being in tune, that's going to help save lives.


Tom Kelly: |00:34:34| By the way, if you want to check it out, it's at kbyg.org. Is that right.


Craig Gordon: |00:34:38| Correct. Yeah. Kbyg.org.


Tom Kelly: |00:34:40| Yes. Great. And we'll put that in the show notes. So people can just click through. Yeah, I want to close out before we get to our Fresh Tracks section. Just closed out a little bit and talk about evolution that you've seen in Avalanche Safety. And I'd like to focus a little bit more inside the resorts. You mentioned earlier the amazing work that the patrol does to keep us safe, but what are some |00:35:00| of the advancements or evolutionary trends that you've seen in the last few years to help keep us safe inside the resorts?


Craig Gordon: |00:35:06| Oh, it's remarkable what technology has done. And you think back in the early 50s, like when Monte Atwater discovered that you could use explosives to knock avalanches down. That's fun stuff. Oh my gosh, it's amazing, you know, to take that 10th Mountain Division mindset and mantra and say, hey, you know what? This |00:35:30| is what they're doing in Europe. And this is what happened during World War two. Why don't we maybe tug one of those, uh, 75mm howitzers up the canyon and give it a test drive? You know, I mean, what a crazy time, you know, like, that would not happen, uh, tomorrow, you know, I mean, obviously, everything is very well regulated and very well standardized, but you go from, from that to what the hard-working women and men of the |00:36:00| ski patrol do every day, and the evolution of avalanche reduction and avalanche mitigation work to go from those early days of a pack howitzer to the fixed guns, that were present in several of our ski resorts, and especially to do the highway mitigation above the roads to make sure that the mountain corridors are safe. Did you go from that to now what we're seeing with and |00:36:30| remember, somewhere in between, uh, our hand charge routes. So that's going on, you know, uh, well into the day, on a big day when ski patrol is trying to get some of their perimeter terrain or even their core terrain open during the day. But to go from kind of that, that blue-collar stuff to this evolution now of remote avalanche control systems, where these systems are |00:37:00| in place year-round and they're on towers, and many of those are expanding so that we can do away with the military artillery.


Craig Gordon: |00:37:10| And these types of programs can go on 24 seven. So that helps to protect cat crews at night. That helps to protect mountain personnel. And again, that helps to protect the hardworking women and men of the ski patrol before they're even getting out into the exposed terrain. |00:37:30| And, you know, you got to think long before we even roll into the parking lot. I mean, the wake-up call is coming at Zero Dark 30, and everybody is hustling and everybody is jamming. And a year like last year, I mean, it might be a blast for a recreationist to be like, woo hoo! You know, it's over the head, it's in your face, it's amazing powder. But remember, every time it snows or the wind blows or there's temperature fluctuations, there is a hard-working crew that's busting their butt before |00:38:00| we even roll in. And I'll tell you, Tom, it is. It's not just the ski patrol. On a big year like last year, you realize the chinks in the armor and the chinks in the Teflon of infrastructure were. Everybody is hustling, and it's from the lift crew to the cat crew and ski patrol, to the people who are flipping the burgers. Everybody is busting their butts to get the resorts open, to get the roadways |00:38:30| open. The plow drivers, I mean, there's a lot going on to keep this place open.


Tom Kelly: |00:38:34| You know, I just. Speaking of the plow drivers, I think skiers often don't think about what the Utah Department of Transportation has to do because especially in the Cottonwood Canyons. Yes. That's remarkable.


Craig Gordon: |00:38:45| It is unreal. So yeah, not only do you have the avalanche work going on, then you've got the people that come in and clean up after the avalanche work is going on, and you figure, man, you see that big orange rig rolling down |00:39:00| the canyon. And I mean, we take all of this for granted that someone has got this delicate touch with the levers and the steering wheel and the timing. And I know as a heavy equipment operator that I was in a former lifetime, you know, they make it look like this beautiful ballet. And it takes a lot to make all of this happen and weave in and out of cars. So, you know, next time you see anybody that is making it all happen |00:39:30| for us and making it all come together, a high five, an air hug, just a hey, thanks for all the hard work. Goes a really long way.


Tom Kelly: |00:39:38| It sure does. Craig Gordon, thank you so much. We're going to close it out with a little bit of fresh tracks, as I call it, some quick lightning round Q and A, and to kick it off, what's your favorite In-resort line in Utah?


Craig Gordon: |00:39:51| Oh man. Well, I would say my favorites got to be back at my home mountain, which |00:40:00| is Brighton, and the Milly side is always my favorite. So the upper Milly Bowl, when that's open, that is always a great place to go powder skiing. So I'm going to say that during a powder, you know, right after a powder day, first sunny day with a foot of new snow. Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me.


Tom Kelly: |00:40:18| Love it. How about outside of the resorts.


Craig Gordon: |00:40:21| Man, I've got a I've got a lot outside of the resorts. I've got a number of lines that I really love in the Western Uintas from |00:40:30| maybe the off the north peak of, uh, Moffit Peak, um, down into the Moffit Basin and aprons on the North Slope. But if I was to come a little bit closer to home, a fun one to stitch together is Mount Wolverine down into Stupid Chute, the Milly back bowl down to Twin Lakes Pass or down to the Twin Lakes. That is a very sweet run in Little Cottonwood Canyon. |00:41:00| Nothing beats the Upper White Pine, Red Pine, Maybird zone. So to really pin it on one day, one place, one condition, you know, it's sort of like a snowflake. And there's hundreds of different ones.


Tom Kelly: |00:41:15| And you've been on all of them.


Craig Gordon: |00:41:17| Oh, yes. Yeah. And, uh, you know, hopefully continue in that spirit moving forward.


Tom Kelly: |00:41:23| You know, I love Moffit Peak, but I go there in the summertime with our Jeep. It's a lot easier.


Craig Gordon: |00:41:27| Lot easier.


Tom Kelly: |00:41:28| That's great I'm looking at that |00:41:30| this summer actually. And I think this is really a great place to ski. Amazing. It's not easy to get to.


Craig Gordon: |00:41:35| No no no. It's it takes an effort to go. But you know, things that take a lot of commitment often have an amazing reward.


Tom Kelly: |00:41:44| Greg, when you've had a long day working up in the snow and you're heading back down to the valley, uh, do you have a favorite apres spot or do you just want to get home?


Craig Gordon: |00:41:52| You know, I want to get home. But often times I swing by and see my friends at Alpha Coffee and see Carl and |00:42:00| Lori Churchill, and they're  big supporters of Utah Avt. And so I like to go in there. I would prefer to start my morning there with, uh, with Craig Gordon's signature coffee. That's a quadzilla, you know, so you get the quad shot of coffee and then you go out to your truck, you dip into the Folgers instant coffee, maybe throw a tablespoon of Folgers instant into that. And and you're running up the mountains, Tom.


Tom Kelly: |00:42:27| So for for those who might not know the location, |00:42:30| it is location, location, location.


Craig Gordon: |00:42:33| Where is it? Yeah, yeah, right at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon and several other, um, valley locations. But but that that's the money right there.


Tom Kelly: |00:42:42| You know, every time I go through there, I look at the 7-Eleven gas station, I look at Alpha Coffee and say, those are two really thriving businesses.


Craig Gordon: |00:42:48| Yeah, they kind of kind of got that one dialed in, for sure. Yeah.


Tom Kelly: |00:42:52| Favorite thing to do outside of skiing?


Craig Gordon: |00:42:54| Well, my favorite thing to do. You know, Tom, after I bust my forecast out, |00:43:00| um, I roll into my home gym. So I love weightlifting and I love fitness and I love endurance. And it just sort of weaves into what I do every day. Um, my day has started for the past couple of decades when I get up. Without an alarm a few minutes after two in the morning, and truthfully, I have woken up without an alarm, although I do have a backup. But but Tom, I'm so excited to go to work every day. And in that regard, I mean, it's insane. I |00:43:30| feel remarkably blessed to be able to do what I do.


Tom Kelly: |00:43:35| If you were to buy a friend a bottle of High West as a gift, what would you buy them?


Craig Gordon: |00:43:41| What would I buy them? Let me think this one over.


Tom Kelly: |00:43:47| Campfire, maybe.


Craig Gordon: |00:43:48| Campfire? Most definitely. So I think if I were to, I think my whiskey for a friend, of course, um, |00:44:00| would be much like a campfire. Yeah. Let's roll with why.


Tom Kelly: |00:44:05| I love it too. Last one. This is always hard. One word. Just one word. What does Utah skiing mean to Craig Gordon?


Craig Gordon: |00:44:13| Oh, Utah. Skiing to me means soul.


Tom Kelly: |00:44:17| Soul. That is a new one.


Craig Gordon: |00:44:19| It's all about soul.


Tom Kelly: |00:44:20| Yeah, it certainly is. Craig Gordon has been a joy to have you here. And we appreciate all you and your colleagues do at Utah Avalanche Center to keep us safe. Thanks for joining us |00:44:30| on Last chair.


Craig Gordon: |00:44:30| Tom. It is my absolute honor and know, and you know this from your heart to my heart to everybody out there, I'm never too busy to talk about snow, to share the avalanche gospel, or just to share daily Stoke. So hit me up on the up track, on the parking lot at a summer concert, in the grocery store or on the lift. I love talking about this stuff. It's been a real honor to have to be here with you.


Tom Kelly: |00:44:57| It's great to have you. And by the way, folks, listeners, if you have |00:45:00| a kid in middle school and you want Craig or somebody to come out and talk to him, give him a holler.


Craig Gordon: |00:45:03| Hit me up. Always available. Thanks, Tom.

 
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