Craig Patterson, avalanche forecaster, killed. Why didn't his air bag save him?

Craig Patterson was an experienced avalanche forecaster. Craig Patterson deployed his avalanche air bag near Kessler Peak. Why didn't it save him?

Authorities Friday were investigating a fatal avalanche involving a backcountry professional who deployed a special air bag but didn't survive a snow slide in the Wasatch mountains east of Salt Lake City.

Craig Patterson of Park City was a veteran backcountry skier for the Utah Department of Transportation since 2006. He was scouting terrain Thursday for avalanche danger in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Officials for UDOT and the Utah Avalanche Center were at a slope under 10,403-foot Kessler Peak on a divide between Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, home to four of Utah's resorts including Alta and Snowbird.

Patterson, 34, was among eight backcountry professionals for UDOT who climb mountains on skis and drop explosives to set off avalanches, usually early in the morning before ski resorts open. They also fire cannon shells from fixed positions, working round-the-clock shifts to keep slides from endangering motorists on canyon roads.

"It's a big responsibility," UDOT spokesman Adam Carrillo said Friday. "They don't take it lightly, and a lot of times they end up going out on their own because there's a lot of terrain to cover."

Patterson's body was recovered just before 1 a.m. Friday.

"He was able to deploy his air bag," Carrillo said. "He did everything he needed to do."

Air bags for skiers, often built into backpacks, are fairly new technology. They were first developed in Europe, where a Swiss avalanche institute says they have saved hundreds of lives. There were introduced in the Rocky Mountains a few years ago at prices from $600 to more than $1,000.

The air bags are designed to keep skiers afloat in an avalanche, but skiers can still be dragged over rocks or into trees. He also had an AvaLung, a device that allows someone to breathe if caught in snow.

UDOT has never lost an avalanche forecaster before, Carrillo said.

The agency is evaluating whether it should require the backcountry avalanche-control workers to work in pairs so one can dig the other out from any slide, he said.

"This is a one-of-a-kind incident," he said. "It's strategic loss to our family."

Avalanche work can be risky. In December, a veteran ski patroller was buried by a slide intentionally set by another member of his patrol at Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe.

Bill Foster, 53, died of injuries a day later.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Patterson was a "dedicated state employee who was admired and respected for his professionalism and expertise in making our canyons safer for countless Utahns."

Patterson leaves a wife and six-year-old daughter and "will be dearly missed," the governor said.

By late Friday, there was still no report from investigators at Kessler Peak.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.