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Avalanche forecaster shares story of lost friends

SALT LAKE CITY — Avalanche forecasters have raised the danger for snow slides into the rarely used ‘EXTREME’ category, a designation they’ve only used once in the last two years.

Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Nikki Champion said conditions in the northern mountains are especially dangerous due to the way the snow has arrived this year.

“Basically everything that could go wrong is going wrong. We’ve got a really weak snowpack, we’ve got a ton of new snow, and we have really high winds,” Champion said. So we could have avalanches on that weak snowpack, we could have avalanches in that new snow, and we could have avalanches in that wind drifted snow. And that wind and snow is going to add a load to that already weak snowpack.”

That combination of unfavorable conditions is something she said could cause this year’s slides will run farther, faster and longer. 

Meet the forecasters

Over the past five days, more than 80 inches of snow fell in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and with all that new snow, comes a new danger.

“Conditions are pretty dangerous,” Greg Gagne said. “They’ve been dangerous all season long, but this is the most dangerous they’ve been this season — and quite frankly, the most dangerous it’s been for quite a few years.”

Gange has been working for the Utah Avalanche Center for more than 20 years, the last 5 of which have been in the role of a part-time forecaster.

“It is my passion,” he said.

In addition to the work he does with avalanches, Gange is also a computer science at Westminster College. 

He said his passion for the snow came after his first few years in the valley after one of his friends died in a slide.

“I first moved here from New England and knew nothing about avalanches, and within my first three years here, I lost a friend to avalanches.” 

That’s when he called the Utah Avalanche Center and asked if he could ride-along with someone to see what he could learn.

“Things were never the same ever since,” he said. “I learned so much in that day. It was amazing.”

Now he does much the same as that forecaster he followed all those years ago, educating others and ensuring everyone can enjoy the beauty Utah has to offer safely.