This time of year, there are many signs that ski season is drawing near. My personal cue that winter is close happens at the Utah Avalanche Center's annual fundraiser. The night supports a good winter cause and serves as a meeting point for people across the industry to share summer stories and catch up before the first snow flies. This year also marked a 20-year partnership between the UAC and Black Diamond.
"It is perhaps the biggest backcountry gathering on the planet," says Paul Diegel, executive director of Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, the nonprofit charged with raising revenue for the UAC. "The unofficial beginning of winter."
The fundraiser was held in the parking lot at the Black Diamond headquarters in Salt Lake City last week and it came on the heels of a massive thunderstorm that soaked the Wasatch and left parts of southern Utah and Colorado under primordial flash floods. The festivities commenced under a glorious rainbow that spanned the valley, a good omen for the coming season some would say.
I walked through the gates and Bruce Tremper, director of the UAC, greeted me with a handshake. Tremper has attended this event every year since its genesis. "This is an amazing partnership we have with Black Diamond and it is the biggest, most fun party of the season," he says.
The crowd of 1,200-plus overran the parking lot playground and gathered around three distinct areas—the food tent, the beer tent, and the auction tent. One can learn a lot standing in any of these lines. Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf was even spotted pouring beers alongside his employees. Standing in the beer line with my wife, I chatted with Little Cottonwood Canyon legend Jimmy Collinson, whose tenure as avalanche forecaster and ski patrolman at Snowbird and Alta has given him ample opportunity to mingle with all kinds of folks in the snow world.
"I like coming to this event because it is the only time of year you get to see some people," says Collinson. "I play the game of guess the face. Some people I haven’t seen in 25 years, but I see them here and it is great."
But the fundraiser is more than schmoozing and drinking a few free beers from the local brewing company. Gear from manufacturers like 4FRNT, Black Diamond, Discrete, Salomon, and Powder graced the walls, tantalizing potential bidders. All items were donated to the fundraiser and went to the highest bidder at the end of the night. Take those auction items, plus ticket sales and a raffle, and the UAC raises 20 percent of their annual operating budget on this night in four hours. It's funding the UAC relies on every year.
"This is a way for everybody in the community to give a little bit and get a lot back," says TJ Kolanko, UAC board member and former Black Diamond marketing man. "With federal funding depleting, this event is necessary for sustainability."
Money collected goes toward keeping the daily avalanche hazard bulletins and educational classes alive and well. Nearly 80 percent of the funds required to operate the public outreach and day-to-day activities of the UAC come from private donations.
"[The fundraiser] always brings together the backcountry-aware crowd in a positive way," says Angel Collinson. Her brother Johnny added some insight into what the UAC does for the community. "Talking with forecasters and locals helps you make better decisions,” he says. “It is critical to respect your own level of expertise in the backcountry."
At 10 o’clock, the rains returned and forced everyone still in attendance to run for cover. We sought shelter in the beer tent with fellow snow lovers. Cheers and chatter erupted as the kegs continued to spew forth their delicious nectar. As the rain poured over the venue, we couldn't help but speculate what would have happened if it were only a few degrees colder.
For more information about the upcoming season and how to support the UAC, visit UtahAvalancheCenter.org.