When Craig Patterson died last Thursday in an avalanche in the Utah backcountry, he became the first American avalanche forecaster to die since 2008 -- and the fourth, including a Forest Service forecaster killed by a roof slide, since 1992. In other words, it's rare that trained experts, whose job it is to monitor the snow stability of known slide paths and mitigate avalanche conditions, are caught by slides.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), 18 people have died in avalanches in the United States this winter. Patterson's death was the 16th of the season.
"Craig was the kind of person who that couldn't happen to. That's kind of how it felt," said Garrett Kemper, a close friend of Patterson's from the Salt Lake City area.
Patterson, 34, had worked as a forecaster with the Utah Department of Transportation for seven years. He was checking snow stability conditions by himself on April 11 on Utah's Kessler Peak above Big Cottonwood Canyon when he was killed, according to an accident report released Monday by the Utah Avalanche Center. Patterson was reportedly in the area to check snow stability because slopes there can pose a threat to the highway below.
According to Kemper and other friends, Patterson was not known for making mistakes that put him in danger. It was just the opposite, they said. He was smart, collected and never pushed his luck, friends added. When he wasn't working for UDOT, Patterson also taught avalanche education classes for Utah Mountain Adventures, a private guiding service based in Salt Lake City.
"He was a guy who always did everything right," said Geoff Lane, another close friend who lived down the road from Patterson.
Patterson, who was ascending the peak at the time, was carried 1,380 vertical feet after triggering a wind slab that broke loose at an elevation of 9,921 feet, according to the accident report. The avalanche was 45 feet wide and a foot thick at its deepest point. The report said Patterson was climbing a standard path used by other UDOT forecasters and backcountry skiers and might have only strayed a foot or two from his original track.
"After seeing the accident site and the avalanche conditions, we all agreed that it was the kind of accident that could have happened to any of us," the report said. "In the mountains, sometimes the snowpack can vary dramatically with subtle variations in terrain and only a step too far can have huge consequences."
When rescuers found Patterson's body later that night he was on top of the debris with his avalanche airbag backpack deployed but had head and hip trauma, according to the report.
"It looks like a small accident that had big consequences," said Jay Beyer, a professional photographer who was close to and had worked with Patterson for a decade.
Along with Patterson, the Utah Department of Transportation currently employs seven other avalanche forecasters who monitor some 70 known slide paths that threaten motorists. All winter, these forecasters are out checking the snow stability and manually setting off slides in a controlled environment before they occur naturally. The Utah Avalanche Center has additional forecasters employed to help keep backcountry travelers safe.
Most mountain states in the western U.S. maintain their own regional avalanche forecasting centers. Colorado's CAIC has 15 forecasters who monitor nearly 50,000 square miles of terrain and 27 stretches of highway in that state. CAIC Director Ethan Greene said some people might think avalanche forecasting is an especially dangerous job, but he disagrees.
"I kind of reject the idea that this is a more dangerous kind of work," Greene says. "It certainly has dangerous aspects to it, but just like any other job where there's risk, the role of these organizations is to identify that risk and manage it to provide a safe working environment."
Greene and Liam Fitzgerald, Patterson's boss at UDOT, both said it's not uncommon to send forecasters out by themselves because there is so much terrain to cover. If they are sent out alone, extra precautions are taken.
"The amount of risk you're willing to take is slightly less," said Greene. "But hopefully you're not taking much risk even when you are with a group." According to the Utah Avalanche Center report, "Having a partner with him probably would not have changed the outcome of this accident."
Patterson leaves behind a wife and 6-year-old daughter and everyone who knew him said his death creates an enormous hole in Utah's outdoor community.
"Craig is irreplaceable," said Julie Faure, his boss at Utah Mountain Adventures. "It's a huge loss for all of us."