Cruising through knee deep powder in the peace and solitude of the Utah backcountry is pure joy. It’s alluring. It can also be dangerous if you are not well prepared. Journalist Tony Gill grew up skiing on 300-foot ski hills in the midwest. Today, you’ll find him on his telemark skis in the Utah backcountry. He’ll talk us through the joy of having a powder slope to yourself, as well as how to best prepare.
Tony Gill turning through some powder down Sunset Peak in the Wasatch Backcountry
Gill, a freelance journalist and outdoor writer for Salt Lake City magazine, became hooked on the backcountry when he moved to Utah. As a telemark skier, he splits his time between resorts and backcountry and works as an educator with |service name="utah-avalanche-center"|Utah Avalanche Center|/service|.
Like many Utah skiers, you grew up skiing elsewhere.
I grew up in suburban Chicago and I went skiing primarily in southern Wisconsin at a couple of teeny little resorts there that had 200 some odd vertical feet. And my brother and I, we just loved it. We ripped around, went night skiing all the time, and eventually my parents took us out to Utah on vacation. I think the first time I ever skied outside of the midwest was at |service name="deer-valley"|Deer Valley Resort|/service| when I was a little kid and kind of fell in love with it and always knew I would end up, you know, pushing most things in life aside to go skiing more.
Tony Gill making some turns through the powder on Kessler Peak.
Last year was tragic with six avalanche deaths in the backcountry. What happened?
The primary issue is last year we dealt with a difficult snowpack, but it's not unprecedented by any means in Utah. But we had a persistent weak layer kind of throughout the range on a lot of aspects. We usually have them on north-facing aspects, but we had them through southeast facing aspects last year. That persistent weak layer was the product of early season snow in November and then an extremely dry December where it almost didn't snow at all for the entire month. So you have that early season snow that's sitting there, and it turns into facets, which is a term for what the snow grains look like. If it's sitting there with really cold nights, the moisture gets pulled out of the snow and it turns into this very sugary, non cohesive surface. That faceting process can happen in hours, but it takes months to heal. So as the snow continued to build up on top of it, you had a thicker and thicker slab of snow sitting on this very weak layer that was near the ground, deep in the snowpack. And it's an unpredictable avalanche problem.
Tony Gill at the summit of Cascade Mountain in the Wasatch backcountry.
With COVID, many more skiers headed to the backcountry. Was that an issue?
Yeah, there were certainly a lot of new backcountry skiers last year. But we didn't see a ton of accidents from new backcountry skiers like some people were expecting. It ranged from somewhat to very experienced people who were caught in avalanches. And I think it was a good wake up call for a lot of people in the backcountry community, myself included, about certain behaviors that we have, certain things that we take for granted, certain shortcuts that we find when we have a more stable snowpack for a season, we kind of don't get those very blunt data points that remind us of the consequences. Every avalanche accident is a combination usually of mistakes that we make combined with a certain degree of randomness from the snowpack and the weather conditions. And it takes all of that for there to be an accident. And last season showed that even some incredibly experienced, very well respected, terrific athletes can get caught. So most of us took notice of that.
Tony Gill on Lone Peak.
How is Utah Avalanche Center getting the education message to backcountry users?
We're expanding the trailhead avalanche awareness program this season, where people from the UAC are going to be at various popular backcountry trailheads throughout the winter just to sort of be an information kiosk. If people have questions about the forecast, they can come up and ask questions if they want to. Any tips on how to use their rescue gear best? You know, we can run beacon drills and rescue drills with people in the parking lot and just to engage with people, get observations from them, you know, and answer questions they might have about the snowpack in the forecast and things that we're seeing out there. So those are all free things that we're doing just to try to engage as many people as possible. And then the UAC also does run a sort of a larger complement of courses for a more comprehensive education. And that starts with half day rescue classes, companion rescue classes where you spend four hours running through drills and it's all about practice with your beak and shovel and probe sort of dialing in different rescue scenarios, getting it all to be second nature. So if you ever do unfortunately have to participate in a rescue, you won't be asking questions of am I doing this right? It'll be, you know, an old hat for you.
Tony Gill skiing out onto a snowy backcountry ridegeline.
For newcomers, especially backcountry visitors from outside Utah, are there guide options?
There are a ton of guide services. If you're a never-ever in the backcountry, taking a course with Utah Avalanche Center is a great place to start. Because we're still going out there backcountry skiing, you learn along the way. But there's a bunch of full service guide companies UMA, Inspired Summit, Ski Utah Interconnect Tour, etc that have everything from snowmobile access to full human-powered touring to everything in between and with very experienced guides who can take you out safely and help you enjoy the terrain that you're unfamiliar with.
Skier Tony Gill removes his skins before a run down the mountain.
What’s one word to describe the passion you feel skiing Utah’s backcountry?
It's a fun activity, I try not to take it too seriously. We're just out there having fun and trying to get back to the car at the end of the day and with a smile on our faces and say that we had a nice time. And whether it's bright sunshine with perfect snow or horrible sleet with upside-down zipper crust on top, if I have fun in all of it and I find a lot of joy and a lot of rewards just in getting out, even on a day that might be largely miserable.
Learn more about Tony Gill and his thoughts on the importance of avalanche safety education on Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast presented by |service name="high-west-distillery"|High West Distillery|/service| on your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to get first access to every episode.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| We're here today with Tony Gill, an avid skier, outdoor enthusiast, a journalist who works for Salt Lake City magazine and an avalanche educator. And Tony, thanks for joining us on Last Chair.
Tony Gill: |00:00:12| Thanks a lot for having me.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:13| I know with skiers this is that time of year in November now where you kind of look up to the mountains, you're looking at the snowpack. We had a great October with snow, but particularly when you look in the backcountry, you know, it's not just the amount of snow, but it's how long it's been around on all sorts of other elements.
Tony Gill: |00:00:28| Yeah, absolutely. It was, you know, everyone gets really excited for early season snowfall for good reason. We've been baking in the sun all summer and we're ready to get back to the hills. But you know, we need good, consistent snowfall throughout the year to build a healthy snowpack.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:42| Well, fingers crossed right now that we're going to have that here in Utah. I want to learn a little bit more about you, and I was excited to hear that you two, like me, come from the Midwest and found your way out here. But how did you get into this crazy sport?
Tony Gill: |00:00:55| My parents, my dad, took me skiing when I was a kid. I grew up in suburban Chicago and I went skiing primarily in southern Wisconsin and a couple of teeny little resorts there that had 200 some odd vertical feet. And my brother and I, just loved it. We ripped around, went night skiing all the time, and eventually my parents took us out to Utah on vacation. I think the first time I ever skied outside of the Midwest was at Deer Valley when I was a little kid and kind of fell in love with it and always knew I would end up, you know, pushing most things in life aside to go skiing more.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:30| It's really a change when you've grown up at places like Alpine Valley and Wilmot and, in my case Cascade Mountain, in Wisconsin. Then you come out here to the big mountains and it's inspiring, isn't it?
Tony Gill: |00:01:40| Yeah, it's incredible. It's something you can't imagine. It exploded my young brain to think that this was out there and yeah, it becomes kind of a compulsion. And I was pretty ready to leave the Midwest in search of bigger mountains by the time I was old enough.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:56| So now on your way to Utah, you made a pass through New England as well.
Tony Gill: |00:02:00| Yeah, I went to college in Maine, a little school in Waterville called Colby, and went skiing at Sugarloaf. As much as I possibly could, I still made an annual trip out West. I did a couple of times. I went to |service name="snowbird"|Snowbird|/service| with my brother and my dad, and no question as soon as I was. As soon as I graduated, I moved here with my now wife. And, you know, we did the classic come for six months and stay for the rest of your lives thing that so many of us do.
Tom Kelly: |00:02:26| How did you get into your career as a journalist?
Tony Gill: |00:02:30| Kind of through skiing. Actually, I graduated with a history degree from undergrad and I came out to Utah and I was just working in ski shops kind of doing whatever I could to go ski as much as I could. And eventually, I went to grad school at Westminster and was working on writing and journalism there, and I started working for Telemark Skier Magazine when that was still a print publication. And I'm a tele skier, by the way. In case you couldn't tell from that, and we, you know, we had a lot of fun there for a few years. We traveled around a lot. All of us on staff, we kind of did. We did it all. We took photos. We, you know, wrote all the words we planned, the trips. We made a movie every year. And the guy who was in charge of that, Josh Madsen still runs a shop in Salt Lake. I think it's probably the only telly shop in the country. It's called Freewheel Life. But that was fun getting involved in that magazine and trying to put together an editorial calendar and that kind of set me on the path. So even my non-skiing activities kind of led to, you know, coming through skiing in my life in a certain way.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:35| It's really fun to translate your passion through words to convey the feeling in the sense of what it's like to be out there in the backcountry.
Tony Gill: |00:03:44| Yeah, for sure. It's really it's hard to describe to people, you know, backcountry skiing is kind of this bizarre activity when you describe it to someone who doesn't know what it is, it's you know, you walk uphill for hours for, you know, a couple of minutes of turns like and that's difficult for people to understand why that's so appealing. But if you can try to share that with people through, you know, storytelling, it's a really rewarding way to share that I think, and hopefully, inspire some more people to get out.
Tom Kelly: |00:04:14| What was your transition from resort skiing to backcountry? How did that transpire for you? I imagine out here in Utah.
Tony Gill: |00:04:21| Yeah, it was out here in Utah. I did a little bit of, you know, very mild backcountry skiing in New England, just sort of like off the Appalachian Trail and freezing terrible conditions. But yeah, out here. I initially came out and I was skiing in Little Cottonwood at Alta and Snowbird a lot, and there's just a ton of good skiers that you meet at that place and you look around, there are all these beautiful mountains surrounding you and as good as Alta and Snowbird are, and the snow is incredible and the terrain is great, it's hard not to just get drawn in and wonder what it would be like to stand on top of those other mountains and ski down. So you stare at them all day, every day while you're skiing, and eventually, you know if you get you get curious and you want to walk out there.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:05| What were some of your first backcountry outings here in Utah?
Tony Gill: |00:05:09| Oh, like a lot of that south-facing stuff across the street, you know, like Flagstaff and things like that, I did Superior probably well before I should have been going up there just because it's that big, obvious south facing mountain looking at you. And yeah, it's right off the road there. So there's no approach and you didn't have to worry about route finding and things like that. So it was I'm sure I was in way over my head and I obviously didn't make the best decisions as in my initial times out there because I didn't really know what I was doing. But it was enough to really get me excited and to meet the right people who I could, you know, follow and learn from and eventually, you know, make it a large part of my life to go backcountry skiing.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:51| Did you have any early mentors here in Utah that introduced you to backcountry and safety in the backcountry?
Tony Gill: |00:05:57| Yeah, kind of. A few that came and went just, you know, random people he knew from the resort who were willing to go out with you. If you knew how to use a beacon and shovel pretty well, they'd be happy to go out with you. And then I kind of had a group of friends who I sort of learned along the way with and we kind of, you know. Kind of grew together as backcountry skiers, which is really nice because it helps you, you know, keep each other in check and learn how to communicate the right way. And you know, you spend a lot of time with people who you're backcountry skiing with, so they may as well be people that you enjoy conversation with as well. So, yeah, a bunch of my close friends.
Tom Kelly: |00:06:38| Backcountry safety is a big issue, and it's a big topic here in Utah, and we had a fairly tragic season last year with six skier deaths, ski and snowboard deaths here in Utah in in avalanches. What was the situation last year that really led to this? These tragedies that occurred in January and February, it had their origins much earlier in the season, didn't it?
Tony Gill: |00:07:00| Sure. The primary issue is last year we dealt with a difficult snowpack, but it's not unprecedented by any means in Utah. But we had a persistent weak layer kind of throughout the range on a lot of aspects. We usually have them on north-facing aspects primarily, but we had them, you know, through southeast facing aspects last year. And that persistent weak layer was the product of early season snow in November and then an extremely dry December where it almost didn't snow at all for the entire month. So you have that early season snow that's sitting there, and it turns into facets, which is a term for what the snow grains look like. And if it's sitting there, you know, with really cold nights, the moisture gets pulled out of the snow and it turns into this very sugary, you know, non-cohesive surface. So what happened was ... That happens fairly quickly. That faceting process can happen, you know, in hours, today's but it takes months for that to heal. So as the snow continued to build up on top of it, you had, you know, a thicker and thicker slab of snow sitting on this very weak layer that was near the ground, so deep in the snowpack. And it's an unpredictable avalanche problem.
Tony Gill: |00:08:20| It, you know, you can't really see it unless you're digging deep in the in pits. It's long-lasting, so it lasts, you know, hung around for months in the ski season. And eventually, I think there was, you know, forecasting fatigue. It was difficult for people to continue to convey the risk that was posed by this persistent weak layer that was deep in the snow. Because when people are avoiding the slopes where that's an issue, you're not getting this negative feedback, you're not seeing these avalanches occur like, you know, after a storm, you'll see a bunch of avalanches in the storm snow. And it's very easy to understand that that's these avalanches are prevalent. They're happening right now. We can see them happening. We know that we can avoid them for a couple of days and then get back out there on these slopes. But this persistence lab problem was deep in the snowpack wasn't rearing its head if as people were making more conservative decisions in the backcountry and eventually it led to complacency where people start to get drawn out into the steeper terrain where these persistent slab avalanches ultimately can happen. So that's I think it was a difficult year last year in that sense in Utah.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:30| I remember in early December last year, I went up into Empire Pass with Craig Gordon from Utah Avalanche Center, and it was a really good instructional period for me. If you can recall, back then we had had maybe a foot or so. There's maybe a foot of snow or so of snow on the ground, and it had been around for a while and we had a little bit of a layer of a couple of inches of fresh. And it was very illustrative to what you're speaking about that that that foot of snow that was on the ground was really quite rotten. It had been around for a long time and nothing was adhering to it. And Craig was pretty accurate in his forecast, saying, You know, as we get more snow, this is going to slide. And that's exactly what happened as we started to see in December and really saw in January.
Tony Gill: |00:10:11| Yeah, absolutely. And you know, again, it's not uncommon for us to have faceted layers in Utah every year. We get them early in the season, but you know, they heal more quickly with more snowfall. So if we get more consistent snowfall, they heal. And we kind of had a very dry start to the winter last year. And yeah, eventually I think it's you just get this baked in complacency throughout the community where people start stepping out little bits at a time and the accidents we saw were not on extreme terrain, but they were on, you know, areas that, while considering some of them were considered safer, but they're still avalanche terrain. Anything over 30 degrees is avalanche terrain. And that was. Kind of cruelly, we were all cruelly reminded of that last season with the way that some of the accidents played out
Tom Kelly: |00:11:04| Going into last season, we were in the COVID period. We really weren't sure what was going to be happening at the resorts. There was a big rush for people to buy backcountry gear. It was becoming more accessible, more companies had it available and there was this fear. I know amongst many of us that we were going to really have this armageddon of newcomers not really knowing what they were doing going into the backcountry. But what we actually saw last winter was really quite different than that in terms of who was involved in these accidents.
Tony Gill: |00:11:34| Yeah, there were certainly a lot of new backcountry skiers last year. But kind of nationally, or around the West, at least, there was a similar snowpack issue, just persistence labs all over the place, and we didn't see a ton of like we didn't get a spate of accidents from new backcountry skiers like some people were expecting. It was a lot of the people were, you know, ranging from somewhat to very experienced people who were caught in avalanches. And I think it was a good wake up call for a lot of people in the backcountry community, myself included, about certain behaviors that we have certain things that we take for granted certain shortcuts that we find that, you know, when we have a more stable snowpack for a season, we kind of don't get those very blunt data points that remind us of the consequences. If we make a mistake and I don't mean mistake to, you know, pass judgment on anyone because all of us make mistakes, and every avalanche accident is a combination usually of mistakes that, you know, we as skiers make combined with a certain degree of randomness from the snowpack and the weather conditions. And it takes all of that for there to be an accident. And last season showed that even some incredibly experienced, very well respected, terrific athletes can get caught. So most of us took notice. I think from that.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:06| A lot of it comes down to decision making and you know, it's easy to go out there and just think, Well, this is not going to happen to me. But can you talk a little bit about the psychological aspects of decision-making in the backcountry? And how do you make that prudent decision versus a decision that's going to maybe be a lot of fun, but maybe also puts you at risk?
Tony Gill: |00:13:26| So this is a growth process that every backcountry skier goes through and I'm. You know, I've been doing this for 10 plus years now, and I've seen a huge change in my own decision-making calculus, but a lot of it starts at home. A lot of it starts before you hit the skin track in the morning, knowing there's certain terrain that you will enter, knowing there are certain terrain you won't enter. And if you've decided that you're not entering certain terrain because of a, you know, persistence lab danger that we're not going to go there no matter what we're going to, we're going to avoid that aspect or we're going to ski low slope angles and we're going to do the best we can to mitigate that, that risk. And it's so easy to say that now sitting here talking about skiing and it's infinitely more difficult as you are on the slope and you're standing adjacent to this beautiful looking run with a bunch of snow and you see tracks on it. Maybe all of these signs saying it's probably not going to happen and it takes a ton of discipline to stick to those decisions you've made and know that even if you have a high likelihood of it not occurring, it's still possible. And walking away from that, being comfortable walking away from that. And if you can't do that, if you can't step back and know that you're going to walk away from something that looks good and do that with a smile on your face, then it's very difficult to backcountry ski safely.
Tom Kelly: |00:14:57| I think it's hard to train for that. Isn't it?
Tony Gill: |00:15:00| Super hard to train for it. Yeah. And again, that wasn't the case with all of the accidents last year. But, you know, just sort of as we get drawn out, there's that appeal to skiing runs that other people have skied that we see on the internet or skiing runs that we've skied before. And we think we know how they behave in all circumstances. But we just don't. And embracing that uncertainty and using that to reinforce a discipline in your own decision-making is a difficult tool to learn and one that all of us could still get better at.
Tom Kelly: |00:15:35| Certainly, one of the areas that was a challenge last year was the gate at the top of the 9990 lift on the Park City ridgeline. An amazing access point to the backcountry lift-served and takes you out of the ski area and into the backcountry. That's not avalanche mitigated, that is not patrolled resulted in two deaths last year. This easy access is no longer available, but the psyche of people going through that gate despite the warnings that are out there. Still, people would go through that gate and maybe not be fully prepared for what they were getting into.
Tony Gill: |00:16:14| Yeah, tons of people would go out there that weren't fully prepared for what they are getting into. And I think a lot of that comes down to just not really understanding the difference between backcountry terrain and resort terrain. And I know the signs seem obvious to people who are experienced skiers. You know, there's a big skull and crossbones. But I think to a less experienced skier, that's not wholly different from those inbounds gates that say avalanche area. Enter only when open something like that. I think it's difficult for people to discern that actual level of risk that exists just beyond the rope line, like it's feet away from where you can happily go skiing without really having to worry about any avalanche risk. And then there's the lemming effect of just you keep seeing people going and people figure, if all those people are going, it has to be safe and that ninety-nine ninety access gate was. You know, almost unparalleled in Utah, certainly for just easy access to, you know, significant avalanche terrain like long, steep runs that avalanche frequently. And you can see it from the chairlift to a short little like two minute boot pack from the top of the chair. And then you can more or less just traverse a ridge and drop into all of these big lines without having to work very hard. And you can see it the entire time from the chair. So it's like a magnet that just sucks people in. And you know, that wasn't necessarily the case with the accidents that occurred on the ridgeline last year of people who are unprepared. But every season we get to the end of the season and I'm frankly surprised there aren't more accidents that occur on that ridgeline, just with the number of people who ski up there.
Tom Kelly: |00:17:59| So Park City Mountain made the decision to close that gate beginning this season. They still have a gate open at Peak Five. What's the difference between those two gates, the 9990 at the top of the lift and the Peak Five gate that's actually a little bit lower on the mountain.
Tony Gill: |00:18:14| So the biggest difference in practice is you can't really see the terrain from the Peak Five gate. So where people will access the backcountry now, you're not just going to be staring at these big open slopes. If you go up 9990, you'll still be able to see all this backcountry terrain and you'll see people there. But you're going to have to go to a different point in the mountain and you're going to have to skin for a few hundred feet to access that ridgeline. So it immediately provides a filter because you're going to have people. Most people who don't have skins aren't going to be willing to boot pack all the way up that ridge. It's kind of a painful boot pack. And so that'll cut out a fair portion of unprepared skiers. There will still be plenty that do access the ridgeline, and I'm a big proponent of, you know, access to public lands. So, you know, hopefully we'll see more responsible backcountry use while still enabling people to access the terrain off the ridgeline, which is really great terrain for the people who've been skiing for decades out here.
Tom Kelly: |00:19:18| We're going to talk a little bit more later on in this podcast about trailhead education. We're with Tony Gill talking avalanche safety today on Last Chair. We'll be right back after this short break.
Tom Kelly: |00:21:27| And we're back with Tony Gill here on Last Chair, The Ski Utah podcast today we are talking avalanche safety and avalanche education. Tony. In the first half, we talked about some of the circumstances that we'd encountered with the snow conditions, decision-making in some of the other elements that go into avalanche safety. Let's talk about the educational opportunities, and we're really blessed, I think here in Utah with the resources that we have with the Utah Avalanche Center. You are an instructor with them. Can you give us just a little bit of a primer on what education is available out here in Utah?
Tony Gill: |00:22:02| Yeah, absolutely. The Utah Avalanche Center the UAC is an enormous resource for backcountry skiers, and you will find nothing quite like it anywhere else in terms of the full breadth of services they offer and everything like that. So we can start by talking about the classes that we offer, the educational classes that we offer and then get into the sort of daily forecasting that's also available. But the UAC this year is trying to enhance our community presence. So, you know, give more of a face to the group of people there. So we're not just a website that you go to to look at the avalanche forecast. And this year we're doing a bunch of free community beacon press free community beacon practice classes at, you know, Sugarhouse Park and up in Park City, just trying to engage with different parts of the community, get people out, practicing what they're beacons and rescue gear, talking about avalanche safety and just meeting other backcountry skiers. And, you know, kind of being a sounding board for people if they have questions or concerns and thoughts. And we have a huge community of instructors and volunteers and dedicated people who are always excited to get out and meet new skiers.
Tony Gill: |00:23:15| So we started this fall a little bit and we've had good turnout, which has been nice. And then also we're expanding the Trailhead Avalanche awareness program this season, where people from the UAC are going to be at various trailheads, popular backcountry trailheads throughout the winter just to sort of be an information kiosk. If people have questions about the forecast, they can come up and ask questions if they want to. Any tips on how to use their rescue gear best? You know, we can run beacon drills and rescue drills with people in the parking lot and just to engage with people, get observations from them, you know, and answer questions they might have about the snowpack in the forecast and things that we're seeing out there. So those are all free things that we're doing just to try to engage as many people as possible. And then the UAC also does run a sort of a larger complement of courses to for a more comprehensive education. And that starts with half-day rescue classes, companion rescue classes where you spend four hours running through a bunch of drills and it's all about practice with your beak and shovel and probe sort of dialing in different rescue scenarios, getting it all to be second nature.
Tony Gill: |00:24:34| So if you ever do unfortunately have to participate in a rescue, you won't be asking questions of am I doing this right? It'll be, you know, old hat for you. As well as it'll give you the tools to practice in the future and stay up to date and current with your skills. And then beyond that, we offer backcountry one on one and two of one classes, which are a one day and a two day course, respectively, that are sort of just an intro into how to backcountry ski. They're not super focused on snow science, they're not super focused on rescue. They're about taking the forecast and the tools that we have available and making responsible choices before we leave the house and how to implement that when we're in the backcountry traveling and they're super fun or we're out there skiing, powder, skinning around in beautiful places. So um, we I got to participate in some of those last year and they were super fun. People had a great time and we're really looking forward to getting as many people out, hopefully learning how to backcountry ski safely this winter.
Tom Kelly: |00:25:32| I particularly like what you just mentioned about the backcountry courses, so if I'm a kind of a never, ever or just getting into backcountry skiing and I really want to learn a little bit more about it, is that a really good place for me to start?
Tony Gill: |00:25:45| Great place to start the traditional education model of sort of your level one, level two through AIARE or AAI, something like that is a ton of information for someone who's just getting started. So if you've never used your skins before, this is a great place to start. We'll give you a skinning techniques on how to move uphill more efficiently and comfortably. We'll give you advice on layering and what to eat in the backcountry. Just all the little things that can make you have a better day out there. So it's not just focused on what are these snow grains doing with these different weather patterns. So, you know, frankly, if you're a newer backcountry skier, you should be reading the report. Taking the tools available, making conservative decisions and implementing them in a fun, safe way when you're in the backcountry. So we're trying to give skiers the tools to do that and get the experience in the backcountry that's necessary to move on to the next level of education if that's something you want to pursue. At some point
Tom Kelly: |00:26:45| Last year, because of COVID, it was more difficult to do the in-person training. So I think a lot of education went online. Is there more of a blend this year between online webinars and actual hands-on get together with an instructor?
Tony Gill: |00:26:59| Yes. So for all our courses, there's sort of a we have for the 101 class. There's a single field day for the 201 class, there's two field days, but both of them are preceded by a several hour educational session. For the classes we're teaching in the Cottonwoods, like in the Salt Lake area, we'll be teaching those in person at our new UAC headquarters, which is over on 33rd above Lone Pine and for the more remote areas for Park City and our other rural courses will still be doing those the classroom sessions over Zoom, but then the field days will be in person. But we're very excited to get back in rooms with people and see people face to face.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:40| Yeah, I think I think all of us are. We're looking forward to a little bit of a different ski season where we can maybe take the masks off in the lift lines and see people. Let's go to the trailhead. Education, I think this is a really vital one. And I imagine that as an avalanche safety instructor, educator, as you are, being out of the trailhead is a pretty fascinating place to be to answer questions that people have.
Tony Gill: |00:28:03| Absolutely. I think it's one of the more fun things we do, first of all, it's just great to meet people who are all excited about the same thing. We're all doing the same thing going backcountry skiing and snowboarding and looking for powder. And, you know, it's a great community to be a part of. So just to meet people in that community is great and there's this huge range of personalities that you'll meet. There are like absolute fitness maniacs who are running uphill and, you know, before dawn. And then there's people just going for a casual stroll for low angle wiggles in the trees. And then there's mountaineers and there's everybody in between. So you kind of see it all at a trailhead, which is fun because we all start from the same spot. And for me, it's one of the more rewarding parts of working with the UAC, just being able to, you know, to be a present face if people do have questions. And I, you know, I'm not the end all, be all expert or anything like that. We're all just regular backcountry users like everybody else. So it's nice to be out there sharing that, you know, experience and any that we have with anyone who cares to listen.
Tom Kelly: |00:29:11| So maybe a little bit of a different question, but for visitors to Utah who are coming in from afar and maybe want to go and spend a couple of days off the resorts and learning backcountry, are there guide services or are there places they can go to get an educated introduction into the backcountry?
Tony Gill: |00:29:31| There are a ton of guide services, so you know, if you're a never-ever in the backcountry, you could, you know, taking a course with the UAC is a great place to start. Even if you, you know, want to experience the backcountry, right? Because we're still going out there backcountry skiing, you learn along the way. But there's a bunch of full-service guide companies UMA, Inspired Summit that you know have everything from snowmobile powered your snowmobile access to learning to, you know, full human-powered touring to everything in between and with, you know, very experienced guides who can take you out safely and help you enjoy the terrain that you're unfamiliar with, for sure.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:13| Yeah, it's you know, I know skiing in Europe a lot. It's pretty common out there and you don't think of it as much here. I think we have a different mindset, but it really is a good, safe way to get an introduction.
Tony Gill: |00:30:23| Yeah, certainly the guides are they're very experienced, you know, they know where they're going and what they're doing. They they take avalanche safety seriously, so it's a great way to kind of take the guesswork out of what you're doing. And, you know, usually they're they're very receptive. They'll make you part of the process and help you understand why they're choosing terrain that they've chosen. And you know, you can learn a lot too while you're out with a guy that's not just you're not just following them around it. Hopefully, ski some powder, you know you can. You can learn a lot from the experience that a lot of them have.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:58| So one of the benefits that we have here in Utah is that we have an amazing forecast center with Utah Avalanche Center, and I know many of us who ski the resorts were used to taking a look on open snow in the morning to see what the powder forecast is. But it's a lot more sophisticated than that, and UIC offers some amazing forecast services. Can you introduce our listeners to what those services are and how important they are for venturing out into the backcountry?
Tony Gill: |00:31:23| Yeah, absolutely. The UAC forecast. Is sort of the starting point for every backcountry skier or just about every backcountry skier before a day of heading out. When you when you go to the website Utah Avalanche Center dot org or open the Utah Avalanche Center app, the mountains are broken down into regions and they have a general avalanche safety rating for that day that will, you know, be color-coded, whether it's considerable or high or moderate. And then when you click on the region, it'll give you a much more detailed breakdown by aspect and elevation of what sort of avalanche hazards you can expect. And the UAC forecasting does a really good job of kind of imparting a little bit of education into their forecast each day. So they rather than just saying we have a persistent weak layer on, you know, north-facing terrain above nine thousand five hundred feet, they'll kind of tell us what that means. They may even go so far as to say it's unlikely that we'll see an avalanche on this. But if we do probably be large and unsurvivable, you know, so things like that, just that will help you understand the scale of avalanches that you're looking at and the probability and using that as, you know, another tool in your toolbox to make your decisions for the day. So everything starts with that forecast. They talk about snow conditions as well, sort of recent weather patterns that we've had, how that will impact the skiing sometimes. So you can use it as advice for where to go. If you're looking for good snow, they might say it's super safe on the south-facing, but got totally baked yesterday. And so unless you're there in the afternoon when it's corning up, it's going to be, you know, rutted nightmare way down. So there's a lot of great tools just on the app or the website that are available. And I think that's, you know, I check it every single day before I go skiing. And even when I'm not skiing, I check it just to stay up to date with what's going on in the backcountry
Tom Kelly: |00:33:21| That that colored compass rose is so easy to understand. You can take a look at it and you can determine exactly where the safest places are going to be in that region.
Tony Gill: |00:33:33| Sure. Yeah, the color compass rose is a great overview, you know, to start with, and then we always encourage everyone to read the full description because the compass rose is, like I said, it's an overview and it lacks nuance. And it's meant to lack nuance because it's a very, you know, clear descriptor of what people are expecting. And again, I'm not I'm not one of those snow science forecasters. Those people will forget more about snowpacks than I will ever know.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:00| But they're crazy, aren't they?
Tony Gill: |00:34:02| They're out there every day digging around obsessing over snow crystals, and they do a really great job of trying to provide a realistic expectation of what we can expect. And in the community, you'll hear a million different opinions about every day's forecast if you look for it. But um, these people are out there working extremely hard and are all extremely trusted within the community.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:28| Yeah, I think it's an amazing benefit that we have here in Utah to have that as a means of helping us protect ourselves when we go out into the backcountry.
Tony Gill: |00:34:38| Absolutely. It's a real gift for all of us, for sure.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:44| Tony Gill, it's been great to have you here on Last Chair. We're going to close out the podcast with a section that I call Fresh Tracks. A few little questions to wrap it up here today. And I know that this is a tough one because you don't like to give away the goods. But do you have any backcountry lines that you would share that are just like that special place that is just really memorable for you?
Tony Gill: |00:35:04| Yes. Stairs Gulch for me. I waited for years to Ski Stairs Gulch. It's a big line in Big Cottonwood and I had a great day with some very good friends and some very good snow up there. And it's a very unpredictable area with a lot of avalanche exposure on all sides. So I waited. I waited years to ski that in good snow and I've I will take the memories of that day for a long time.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:27| You waited for a few years, but did you feel comfortable when you went out there that your knowledge was helping you?
Tony Gill: |00:35:32| Yeah, absolutely. I mean, patience is key. You know, I'm looking to do this for a long time, so I'm not making bold decisions out there anymore, certainly.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:43| So you're a telemark skier? Do you have a favorite go-to resort when you're going to do an inbounds day?
Tony Gill: |00:35:49| Snowbird is absolutely my favorite resort. It's probably the reason I moved to Utah.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:54| What do you like about it?
Tony Gill: |00:35:55| The terrain is just incredible. On the tram to get three thousand foot laps with a single chair ride is pretty awesome. Skiing Great Scott and going all the way to the bottom. Hard to beat
Tom Kelly: |00:36:05| And there's a small but passionate tele community here in Utah, right?
Tony Gill: |00:36:09| Yeah, there's a few of us left. We're dropping like flies as the AT gear gets so good. But yeah, there's still a few of us free-heel skiing out there.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:18| So do you have a favorite High West whiskey?
Tony Gill: |00:36:22| The original Rendezvous Rye. When that came out, I was kind of ... blew my mind, I was pretty young, and that was probably the first good whiskey I ever had.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:29| So have you tried some of the others?
Tony Gill: |00:36:31| Yeah, I've tried. The Campfire is pretty good.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:33| I like Campfire.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:34| Yeah, yeah, it's good at a campfire l
Tom Kelly: |00:36:36| A little Bourye?
Tony Gill: |00:36:37| Yeah, Bourye is good.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:38| Yeah.
Tony Gill: |00:36:38| Son of brewery, right? They had another.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:40| Yeah. Oh yeah. They're always coming out with something. And then one last one, I know this is a tough one that stumps a lot of people, but you have your passion in the backcountry here in Utah. And if you could describe that feeling that sensation that you experience back there in one word, what's that? One word that describes what the backcountry means to you? Joy.
Tony Gill: |00:37:02| Pure joy,
Tony Gill: |00:37:02| Just joy, it's just a fun activity, I think part of why I love it is taking the, you know, I try not to take it too seriously. We're just out there having fun and trying to have a get back to the car at the end of the day and with a smile on our faces and say that we had a nice time. And whether it's bright sunshine with perfect snow or horrible sleet, you know, with upside down zipper crust on top, it's if I have fun in all of it and I take a lot of I find a lot of joy and a lot of rewards just in getting out, even on a day that might be largely miserable.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:42| So well, it has been a joy, Tony, to have you here on Last Chair. Thank you for all you do in helping to keep us safe and as a journalist for spreading the word on avalanche safety education. Thanks for joining us on Last Chair.
Tony Gill: |00:37:54| Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.