For many snow sports enthusiasts, the Annual Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) Fundraiser marks the end of summer. It’s a great place to throw back a couple of local beers with friends and kick off the upcoming ski season. The event has become a reunion of sorts for the outdoor community and the crowd looks like a sea of puffy jackets and snow stoke is high. There’s live music, specially brewed beers by Uinta Brewing, and a silent auction with loads of outdoor gear. It’s the Utah Avalanche Center’s biggest fundraising event of the year.
List most large and even small scale events this year, the 27th annual UAC Backcountry Benefit had to go virtual. The Black Diamond parking lot was swapped for backyards across the Wasatch and the meal was traded in for discounts at area restaurants. According to Hannah Whitney, development director for the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, “It was incredible. We were blown away with the response and exceeded our goal.”
The Utah Avalanche Center has been a vital part of Utah’s ski and snowboard community since the late 1970s. The center’s mission is to provide avalanche education, outreach, and forecasting, and to act as a sort of community liaison between the ski resorts, the Utah Department of Transportation, and others involved in snow safety.
The UAC was once almost entirely funded by the National Forest Service but a severe cut to its operating budget in 1993 put the organization’s future in jeopardy. Some members of the community decided to host a party at former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson’s house to raise money for the organization to try to make up for the shortfall in funds and a tradition was born.
From its humble beginnings, the UAC fall fundraiser has grown to an event with thousands of attendees. Some even call it the world’s biggest backcountry party so to transition to an online event was a huge challenge. “What really helped us is that we made the decision early on that we weren’t going to do any in-person event. This lets us go all in and figure something else out,” said Whitney.
Attendees were encouraged to host backyard parties per local COVID restrictions, pick up some Uinta beer brewed specifically for the event called the UAC Turn Farm Cream Ale, bid on the online auction, and tune into a live stream of the event. Ticket prices were cut in half since attendees wouldn’t be getting a meal and drink tickets and they would up selling twice as many tickets as previous years.
“We made more out of the auction than before and ticket sales were very comparable,” said Whitney. “People were a craving community connection whether it be sitting in a room by themselves or getting together in a backyard. It was like a remote party.”
One attendee and UAC supporter Jean Wheeler said of the event “I felt much more connected to the UAC staff and their awareness programs than you would get at the BD in-person event.” UAC used a professional studio to coordinate the live stream out of Ogden called Thin Air Media, which Whitney described as critical to their success, and unlike the in-person event, they were able to showcase their staff members, do live presentations, and show videos.
“One silver lining of the event is we got a ton of feedback from supporters dispersed throughout the state. They were really excited that they could be involved,” said Whitney. She said they learned a ton and although they can’t wait to get back to the in-person event, they want to do more to involve the folks spread out across the state.