For the region’s winter outdoor enthusiasts, the fun and excitement of exploring the wilderness, whether on skis, snowmobiles, or through other activities, can become risky in a heartbeat.
It’s a sad reality for many each season. But with the proper training, a day in the mountains can not only be enjoyable, but just a bit safer.
As the region begins to trudge into the dead of winter, several local residents are hoping to keep those who play in the mountains safe.
Wray and Lani Landon, in conjunction with the American Avalanche Institute and the Idaho Falls Ski Club, have made it their mission to educate the outdoor community on the avalanche dangers in the backcountry.
And it all started with an unspeakable incident.
Forging ahead through rough times
Lani Landon endured a tragedy no parent should ever encounter.
On Feb. 21, 2010, Landon’s son Wray Landon, an experienced backcountry skier, died when an avalanche swept him up while skiing along the South Teton.
It was a tragic incident, one Lani Landon said took her family by complete surprise.
“My son knew what he was doing,” she said. “And we want people to know that, just because you take a course once, even though Wray knew perfectly well what he was doing, and was well equipped, it can happen.”
For the past nine years, Landon and her husband have hosted an avalanche awareness night in Idaho Falls. The event, co-sponsored by the American Avalanche Institute and the Idaho Falls Ski Club, along with proceeds and donations from several local businesses. The free seminar features a multitude of expert speakers, informative lessons, and giveaways.
“We want people to know that there are always resources around,” Lani Landon said. “There are endless resources. There are classes, whether it’s through AAI, whether it’s from another organization. We just want people to have the right equipment and not go out there unprepared.”
“We just want people to know that they can have fun and be safe.”
This year’s event was held last week at Taylorview Middle School and featured a record turnout.
“It is rewarding to see our event grow in numbers each year, as we hit 238 attendees this year, up from 50 nine years ago when we began at the library,” Lani Landon said.
Landon began organizing these events for the ski club while operating as the organization’s Alpine director, coordinating trips for the club.
But the tragic death of her son shifted her attention toward safety and awareness for those who venture into the mountains during winter months.
“My focus changed from running trips for the ski club to doing this every year and focusing on avalanche safety,” Landon said. “My focus is trying to do something positive when something horrible happened to my life. I think what keeps me going forward is that focus. I don’t want this to happen to somebody else.”
Always remain vigilant
In the winter of 1974-1975, Rod Newcomb began offering avalanche awareness courses to those interested in northern Colorado and western Wyoming.
What manifested from these courses developed into the American Avalanche Institute.
Newcomb passed the institute along to three of its instructors in 2009 — Don Sharaf, Don Carpenter and Sarah Carpenter — but the organization’s mission remains the same: To keep individuals aware and vigilant about potential avalanche threats when in the mountains and let them know that their activities in that area can be the trigger of a potentially deadly event.
“I’d say 99 percent of avalanches that people are caught in are triggered by the people themselves,” Sharaf said.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there were 12 avalanche-related deaths nationwide during the 2016-2017 season, which concluded in the spring, including three in the Greater Yellowstone region.
To help better inform residents of the dangers and causes of avalanche activity, Sharaf encourages those venturing out in the winter to stay aware and ahead of potential activity in the regions they are visiting.
“We talk about the signs of instability being, first and foremost, natural avalanche activity,” he said. “If you’re on a slope that faces east at 9,000 feet, and another slope that faces east at 9,000 feet has avalanched recently, you’re probably in the wrong place.”
Sharaf said keeping an eye on your surrounds could be key to saving you from a potentially dangerous situation.
“The actual avalanche activity, or any other activity, that’s what we call ‘bulls-eye information,’” he said. “The other things that are just secondary are shooting cracks that appear in the surface and collapsing, or what we call ‘whumpfing.’ Honestly when you hear it in the field, you know that’s bad. There’s nothing about it that seems good.”
Landon implores those heading to the backcountry to keep a close eye on local avalanche reports, and give themselves at least a day before determining whether the area you are wishing to visit is safe.
“I always tell people to go back and look at longer periods of time to see what happened in the conditions,” she said. “And that’s why AAI is here; to tell people how to check, and always looking to see how the avalanche report is.”
After residing in Idaho Falls for 25 years, Landon and her husband have retired to Driggs. However, their mission to continue educating the public on avalanche safety will continue.
“If one person goes away a little smarter, that’s all I want,” she said. “It’s just that they have to know there are resources out there.”
Reporter Marc Basham can be reached at 208-542-6763.