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Sandy Journal

Waterford course covers backcountry recreation, avalanche safety

Feb 09, 2021 01:23PM ● By Julie Slama

Waterford outdoor program instructor Tyler Waterhouse taught how to deploy an avalanche flotation backpack in January 2017. (Chris Watkins/Waterford School)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

At 9,800 feet, in an east-facing slope outside the boundaries of Park City Ski Resort, a soft slab was unintentionally triggered by a backcountry skier. Then, an avalanche broke, carrying the skier 200 feet, burying him under 2 feet of snow.

This may well be just a scenario, but Waterford School outdoor program teacher Christopher Watkins said avalanches often occur when conditions are right—in this case, a heavy snowfall falls upon a weak layer—and it’s a necessity that outdoor recreationalists are aware of the danger and have a knowledge of being safe in the winter.

“That is an awareness piece for our community, and anybody that goes into the mountains when they’re covered in snow, regardless of the user group, whether it’s cross country skiers, snowboarders or families going for a walk, having a basic awareness for the ingredients you even need to have an avalanche,” he said. “There’s just a general understanding of the terrain that you’re going in, regardless of the activity you’re involved with.” 

Watkins ensures students in his 11-week winter term outdoor class read the daily advisory they receive from the Utah Avalanche Center for the Salt Lake and Wasatch Mountains as part of their curriculum. 

Then, he teaches what he calls a triangle avalanche approach where snowpack, terrain and weather are the three points and the human factor lies in the middle.

“We teach these concepts and these ideas of you can go out and recreate safely, these avalanches do not happen completely on their own. You need specific ingredients; you need data from weather factors—the weather forecast, you need data from the current snowpack and you need to understand the basic terrain features—how steep slopes are, the direction the slope faces, whether it’s a north-facing or a south-facing slope, because the slope is going to react differently,” he said. 

Watkins teaches students to understand the grains of snow—facet versus round, the terrain of vegetation and rocks, slope angles, the depth of the snow and weather forecast—all factors that play into avalanches.

“The fourth component is something that’s called the human factor and it’s fascinating to delve into that with high school students because it talks about how we’re sort of fallible and flawed as humans, working with other people and how we can make mistakes or peer pressure, things like that, that lead to mistakes being made as far as decision-making when you’re out and about,” he said. “Case studies are really fascinating to look at it through the filter of avalanche education awareness and all these categories—and try to evaluate what you would have done differently, or just saying, ‘I never would have thought about that and hopefully this case study will help me if I’m every in that situation in the future.’”

Watkins said that “it’s a powerful, powerful topic because it bridges some really interesting conversations” with students. For example, he said, in life, as well as in avalanche training, people work in teams and they begin to understand that importance. Another point is that they study people who have been caught in avalanches, including fatalities.

“You’ve got to have this honest, open conversation off the information that we saw and the way that we are thinking about it and discussing it, and then, try to relate that to somebody that lost their lives. It’s that kind of impact,” he said. “We need to empower students to understand this information and for them to think for themselves. We challenge the dynamic of an authority, an adult teacher, telling you something; we need to educate the individual to understand this information and get them to process and think about it—in the moment. It’s a great kind of a-ha moment, right; it changes the kind of lens that we’re seeing and evaluating things.”

According to, 20 to 40 people die in avalanches each year in North America and 90% of deaths are triggered by the victim or members in the victim’s group. 

However, Watkins said that there is about a 95% survival rate if somebody can get them an airway within the first 15 minutes.

Only one day per week of the course is classroom case studies, guest speakers and lecture. Two days, the students are outside learning and improving their outdoor recreational skills. One day, they may ski downhill at Snowbird Resort, while another, they will take the school-provided backcountry ski equipment—complete with avalanche beacon, probe and shovel—and venture into the wilderness. In each outing, about 12 students are teamed up with two instructors.

“We’re teaching the techniques of how to use that type of equipment, but the curriculum is even more about the avalanche awareness components,” he said. “And we talk about it. Maybe a student mentions, ‘this way seems more scary than this one,’ so it’s a really direct experience or education; you’re in that environment talking about it.”

It also teaches students to be responsible—to arrive in the right kind of clothing for the day with the right equipment—and collaborate as a member of a team and be prepared for the day’s schedule. Typically, students wearing double-layer gaiters, are socially distanced on the bus, to ensure COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, as they head out at 2:30 p.m. and return to campus by 6 p.m.

“Living here can be a lifestyle, it’s not a trip that you do once a year. It’s something you can do in the evening or when you want to. So, we’re going out and having just a really invigorating experience in these amazingly beautiful places right here in our backyard; but knowing that we’re doing that, in the afternoon, where temperatures are dropping and we are in the backcountry, some of our locations are more than one mile from a paved road. We’re not relying on a cell phone. If something happens, we have to know what to do. That’s the mentality you take when you’re in the backcountry skiing and splitboarding (where two ski-like parts can be used to ascend the mountain, but then be connected to go downhill),” he said.

Watkins said that the class takes a safe approach to their backcountry experiences, setting a goal to hike up a hill for 90 minutes, gaining about 1,200 feet, then transitioning the equipment to downhill settings. One instructor will be in the front of the group and one brings up the rear.

“We’re going to come back down and manage this group getting back down safely and having fun,” he said.

The students usually venture up Millcreek, Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons, depending on conditions, the day’s objectives and the amount of time they have.

“It’s very dependent on the avalanche danger that is stated by the Utah Avalanche Center every day; it’s a really incredible media resource,” Watkins said. “We want to make sure that we’re in terrain that is so safe that an avalanche isn’t even possible because the slope isn’t steep enough and you don’t have a big steep slope above you or adjacent to you.”

Waterford’s outdoor program dates back to the mid-1990s and eventually shifted a few years later from a club to a physical education credit course with 55 hours of outdoor education. Watkins got involved in the program more than 15 years ago and has transitioned it to offer both backcountry and downhill recreation. 

“There’s been a surge of backcountry skiing in the last 10 years and more students have their own backcountry equipment and are aware of avalanche safety just coming in the class,” he said, adding that oftentimes, students enroll in the course every term, year after year. “It’s you don’t learn it and then you don’t have to think about it. It’s more this is a system that you have to utilize every single time you go into the backcountry. I’m an avid backcountry skier and splitboarder, and I’ve worked at the resorts growing up, but every time we go into the backcountry, you have to carry the essential equipment and they need to train so they know how to use it. So, there’s a ton of learning and you lose it if you don’t use it, so repetition is absolutely the key.”

Students need to be able to ski intermediate downhill slopes to participate. A modified course also is offered for seventh- though ninth-grade students, which includes snowshoeing, sledding and cross country skiing.

“It’s amazing when I get kids that I start working with in middle school, and they continue with it, because then you really get to the point where you can lean on them when they’re upperclassmen to be leaders and that’s when the magic happens. Younger students see the older students who have learned so much and they want to pass that on to somebody who is younger. It’s a bond that bridges that doesn’t always happen. They crossover in their interest in skiing or nature. And through this opportunity, they are working together and getting to know one another that they may not otherwise. It gives them kind of that vision of a path forward to continue taking these classes and having these experiences,” he said.

Watkins said the outdoor program has become a “signature course.”

“They’re learning more about something they already care about and these shared group experiences,” he said. “There’s no one on a cell phone; everybody is present, everybody wants to be there, everybody is being challenge physically and they’re seeing beautiful things.”