Avalanche Safety In Colorado And Beyond | Backcountry 101
As more and more snow enthusiasts flock to Colorado, people are seeing the advantages to skiing, riding, hiking, and snowmobiling out of bounds of major ski resorts. The crowds of newbies disperse, no one yells at you to slow down, and the beauty of Colorado’s backcountry can be incredibly captivating. What can slip the mind, however, is the imminent danger of nature’s incredible power. Every year, human factors can lead to dangerous avalanches, an inherent risk for anyone traveling in the backcountry.
Despite imminent danger, the backcountry was calling my name. Perhaps it’s that I hate lift lines, or maybe because for some reason resorts won’t let you ski with your dogs; for me tasty backcountry lines are super enticing. Admittedly, the reason could also be that I’m dating the most powder hungry man of all time, M, who in recent months had managed to convince me to buy touring skis and skins; two purchases that marked the beginning of my backcountry novice adventures. That said, I also did not want to die. So, to help ensure my safety, and that of those around me, who would inevitably be left with the task of facilitating my rescue were something to happen, I decided it was time to start my avalanche training and take the Avalanche Safety Course. M and I loaded our Subaru with skis, skins, dogs, and gear and headed to Avon, CO to learn about avalanche safety from some pros.
First Off, Why is Avalanche Safety Important?
Over the last 10 winters an average of 27 people died in avalanches each winter in the U.S. Even more staggering is the number of people who die in Colorado avalanches compared to the rest of the country, even Alaska. From 1950-2015, 270 people (most being backcountry tourers) died in avalanches in Colorado . Avalanches are not partial to those who have more training, in fact, most deaths come as quite a shock to the community, including a recent death where an extremely experienced outdoorsman and avid snowshoer, Doug Walker, died in an unexpected Avalanche in Washington State. He served as chairman for REI and was the president of the American Alpine Club as well as other national outdoor groups. Described as “a champion of access to the outdoors for all people” by his friend Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, and according to friends, had reportedly hiked this same route some 200 times. Despite the dangerous and undeniable fact that avalanches can and will happen, the allure of traveling in the backcountry has its perks. This means accepting the risks involved, and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about the dangers and learning ways to recognize and mitigate them. As the allure of pristine pow and magical tree lines is calling you to the backcountry, like it does for me, it might be a good idea to take an Avalanche Safety Course to learn the basics and begin looking into avalanche gear.
Avalanche Safety Course Part I: Get Your Crew Assembled
Our first day of Avalanche Safety Course took place in a classroom with our fearless leader Kyle – a heli-tour guide in Alaska and the most rad teacher of all time, who like my boyfriend M and what seems to be an ever increasing number of my friends grew up in the Mid-west dreaming of towering mountains and pillows of snow. When watching an avalanche video or telling a story of one, Kyle frequently summed up events by saying “well, those guys got spanked.” After watching a somber mix of avalanche videos and dull powerpoint slides featuring mostly new words that Kyle forgot to explain like, facets, rounding, slabs, cornice etc., we finally split into smalls groups. M and I insist on being together so we can learn to save each other.
As our guide and teacher for the next few days helps us plan a mock trip. We first discuss our goals, experience and abilities. M and I just want to take some sweet turns in untouched pow; the rest of the group feels the same. Nonetheless, one of the first keys to avalanche safety is the establishing a safe group dynamic. No one has an “expert halo”, and we have to make decisions as a team together. If one person is uncomfortable for whatever reason, it is their duty to speak up. With Kyle’s guidance, we agree to “travel together, decide together, respect everyone’s voice, and anyone’s veto” (AAIRE Field guide, avtraining.org).
Avalanche Safety Course Part II: Make A Plan And Choose Terrain
We spend our morning drinking coffee, looking at maps, and checking the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) Website for avalanche warnings, snow pack information, sighted/reported avalanches, and weather. As we haven’t had many big snows in a while and we know that Colorado’s snowpack is pretty stable this winter, there is, however, considerable avalanche danger on slopes steeper than 30 degrees. We find the least steep way to skin up, making sure we have plenty of escape routes and ‘plan B’ s, in case of danger. We also have various paths down, just in case the terrain we planned on skiing seems like an unrealistic choice mid-ascent. We cover every possible outcome during this essential planning time, before we ever pull into the parking lot or strapping on our backcountry gear- what will we do if there is poor visibility (leave), how we will call for emergency response (911 on a cell phone; Kyle also has a radio to contact the other guides), maintaining visual contact (staying together at all times), finding safe zones (pre-planned areas that are less steep and treed for more cover).
One thing the instructors stress the most is having a plan, and sticking to it, no matter what. “Are we going to avoid that super steep cliff area, should we travel underneath it, and what’s the consequence if we do come across a problem?”. These may seems like silly questions, but are actually some of the most important when it comes to avalanche safety. Most case studies in which avalanches killed or buried someone, show one group member decided to huck a rock they weren’t supposed to, or skied down a line that wasn’t pre-planed. The lure of fresh powder, especially after a grueling hike up, is undoubtedly enticing. Sometimes a group member can become clouded in judgement and goes on to ruin the day for everyone.
Check Your Resources:
- Colorado Avalanche Information Center, now has an app
- Google Maps for Terrain Choices
- Cal Topo for topographic maps, also has an app
- Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain
- Avalanche Handbook
Avalanche Safety Course Part III: Get Backcountry Gear And Learn To Rescue The Crap Out Of Your Friends
Cha-Ching. Buying the right backcountry gear will cost you a pretty penny, but to put it in perspective, how much do you value your life, or the life of your brother, sister, boyfriend, etc.? Your avalanche kit will require the big three: an avalanche beacon (think of it as a hide and seek sensor), a probe (a long stick like mechanism to poke for things under the snow), and a shovel (preferably something light that can be put together quickly, and is also big enough to shovel a crap load of snow off your loved one). In addition to creating an avalanche kit, with everything you need in a winter survival situation, you will need appropriate winter clothing, touring skis or a splitboard, skins for your skis, helmet, and backpack.
The Big 3: Avalanche Safety Kit
I won’t go into a long explanation of how to use your beacon, but in general, once on it has two modes:- receive and transmit. Receive, if you want to find someone who is buried under the snow, and transmit if you want someone to find your signal. Having full or at least 70% battery life is also crucial, which I feel like is a minute point. I was using a middle of the line model, the Ortovox Zoom Plus. It was fairly easy to understand. One button for on, automatically in transmit mode., and flip a switch and you’re in receive mode, and ready to find your friends. The arrows light up in the direction of the beacon you wish to find, and the numbers show the estimated are estimating distance away from the transmitting beacon. We practice searching for buried beacons, probing the snow, and digging out our simulated buried friends in various locations and different terrain. We practice within the group we plan to travel with, something AAIRE wants you to do often to keep your skills sharp. Kyle, being the funny but also extremely serious avalanche guide that he is, hides a beacon in a tree and giggles as I point my receiving beacon at snow on the ground and frantically try to save my simulated buried group member. A quick lesson on how adrenaline, emotions, and general panic can affect your survival skills in the event of a real avalanche. Unpredictable in nature, avalanches are a hefty opponent; a calm demeanor can be your best tool for defense.
A basic probe (looks like tent poles) like this oneworks great for poking around the snow once you’ve located your buried beacon and can help you pinpoint the exact location to dig for your buddy. Being off in your probe marks by just a couple of inches can mean the difference between life and death for your friend. Make sure it’s made of sturdy material and can be assembled quickly, saving you valuable rescue time. Bonus if it has depth marks so you can accurately measure snowpack, among other things. Practice putting it together quickly, and store it in an accessible place inside your backpack.
Did you find a cute tiny shovel? Get rid of it! Buy the biggest monster shovel you can fit into your pack and safely carry up the mountain, like this one from BCA is a great option. Store it inside your backpack, disassembled. Practice putting your shovel together quickly, as mine frequently was iced over and I had trouble getting it locked and loaded, especially under stress. Aim for about 30 seconds of assembly time and use a stopwatch to make sure your speed and accuracy are improving with practice. If they aren’t attempt some different approaches until you can assemble your shovel in an acceptable timeframe. The average burial depth of an avalanche is 1.4 meters, and there can be between 1.5-2.5 tons of snow on top of your buddy (avtraining.org, AAIRE Field Book), which means a hell of a lot of snow to shovel with a dinky and awkward short handle.
- Touring Skis And Bindings
- Splitboard And Bindings
Avalanche Safety Course Part IV: Learn And Practice Reacting And Responding In Avalanche Danger
Learn and Practice to React and Respond in Avalanche Danger
Colorado’s invariable weather, snowpack and terrain makes it a mecca for unintentionally triggered avalanches. The CAIC website has a plethera of reported avalanches and detailed case reports to prove it . As a rescuer follow these steps if your group is caught in an avalanche. And remember, time is of the essence, the calmer and better equipped you are to handle this stressful situation, the better chance you have of finding your fellow adventurer alive.
As a rescuer:
1) Yell Avalanche
2) If someone is caught, maintain visual contact and watch their line of trajectory
3) Protect the rest of the party, or find the safest place out of the avalanche zone
4) Watch for Hangfire (more avalanches)
5) Report it (typically call 911 if you have service and tell them the nature of the accident, and number in your party, but remember a mobile device can interfere with your beacon transceiver)
6) Get out your equipment
7) Execute your rescue plan
Don’t be Reckless, Stay Informed
Avalanche level 1 course only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Avalanche Safety in Colorado’s expansive mountains. Level 1 is a prerequisite to going in the backcountry and mostly teaches snow seekers how to move through a framework of decision making- ultimately to plan for travel in avalanche terrain, identify avalanche terrain, and as a group decide where and how to travel within it. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AAIRE) says that your best chance of survival is companion rescue, within 15 minutes of triggering an avalanche your survival rate is 92%, after 15 minutes your chances are only 8% (avtraining.org, AAIRE Field Guide). Typically, just being in the mountains means you are in avalanche terrain. So it makes sense to stay informed, take a class from AAIRE, and learn to identify signs of avalanche danger. M and I’s eyes are now open to how reckless and yet extremely lucky we have been in many instances.
Going forward for adventuring in the backcountry we now know how to:
- Choose the right group, people who are competent and similar in ability and goals
- Make a solid plan by using our available resources and contemplating every possible consequence
- Recognize avalanche terrain in the backcountry and stay away from it!
- Properly use our gear to rescue each other if need be (fingers crossed we never have to use it!)
For more on different avalanche types and conditions as well as avalanche variations between states consult the following articles and stay tuned for more of our adventures and lessons from the backcountry.
Avalanche Safety Resources
Get Out There!