A:Yes, there have been some fatalities this winter. Nine so far, in fact, across the western United States. The latest came in January, when a snowboarder hitting some backcountry snow triggered an avalanche in Utah and slid more than 1,000 feet. The snow this winter is risky: there's a big, fun snowpack sitting on top of a very weak, dangerous base. The avalanche risk in several states—Utah, Colorado, Wyoming—is considerable.
I'm a proponent of good safety and rescue equipment, but I have a big caveat: If your ever find yourself thinking 'Well, I have the right gear, so I’ll be okay if an avalanche hits,' you should not be going into the backcountry. No one is okay in an avalanche. It’s analogous to being hit by a car, or a torrent of very cold, fast-moving water. The physical forces are tremendous, and no matter your gear, there's a good chance you'll be killed within minutes. If you survive the initial slide and haven't been knocked unconscious by a tree, you face two challenges. First, once the avalanche stops moving, you have only a few seconds to carve out space in front of your face before billions of snow crystals begin coalescing and seal you into position like concrete. Two, your companions (assuming they weren’t buried as well) have roughly 15 minutes to find you before you being to suffocate.
By far the best thing you can carry is common sense. Take an avalanche safety course so you know the basics. Learn to evaluate the snowpack where you're skiing, and keep an eye on avalanche reports for your area. If you suspect avalanche danger, go back to your car. Otherwise, I recommend traveling in the back country with the following gear.
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