Colorado leads the U.S. in avalanche fatalities. Most deadly avalanches are started by the people involved. Travel in avalanche terrain—which is almost inevitable if you take part in Colorado’s abundant winter snow activities—can be dangerous. To reduce your risk of having an accident you need to be able to assess and manage your risk. Education, training and awareness is key to survival so before heading into the backcountry in winter, be prepared and know what you’re getting yourself into and how to get out.
Avalanches kill an average of 42 people each year in North America. Hundreds more are injured. They don’t just happen to extreme athletes, they can happen to those skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, hiking, driving, hunting, bike riding, and more—anyone who can get onto or underneath steep snow-covered slopes. Many avalanche victims don’t know they are in avalanche danger and are unprepared to deal with an avalanche. This doesn’t have to happen – the danger signs are usually obvious to those who know what to look for. What you don’t know can kill you. Before you go into the mountains in winter, learn as much as possible about winter safety and survival.
Numerous avalanche awareness and winter safety events take place in January. Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Nederland Fire present a Know Before You Go event, a free avalanche awareness program, Jan. 6 from 7-9 p.m. at the Nederland Community Center. There is not much science, no warnings to stay out of the mountains and no formulas to memorize. In about an hour, participants will see the destructive power of avalanches, understand when and why they happen, and how you can have fun in the mountains and avoid avalanches. This is also a good refresher if you have previously completed avalanche training. Whether you ski, board, sled, snowshoe or practice extreme snow angels, join them for an entertaining evening to help keep you safe in the mountains.
For the 12th consecutive season, Friends of Berthoud Pass is offering its Avalanche Awareness Classroom Series which covers topics such as avalanche forecasts and warnings; observing weather, snowfall and recent avalanches; avoiding terrain hazards, avalanche safety gear and real scenarios; and making a plan for return. Even if you have tons of experience in the snowy backcountry already, these free classes are a great early-season tune-up on existing skills. There is no need to register for any of the classes, and each location covers the same topics. Classes include Bent Gate Mountaineering in Golden on Jan. 6, Upslope Brewing Company in Boulder on Jan. 12, Outdoor Divas in Boulder on Jan. 19, and Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder on Feb. 18. Visit berthoudpass.org for more information and class dates.
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy offers its Avalanche Awareness and Outdoor Safety in Winter Class, Jan. 15 and Feb. 12. Instructor Eli Helmuth teaches full-time avalanche safety courses all winter in Rocky Mountain National Park and leads climbing and skiing adventures in the park as well as in Alaska and throughout the Andes and Himalaya ranges. The course will be a condensed overview of the avalanche phenomenon with a goal of participants being able to identify how, when, where and why avalanches are likely to occur in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a study of avalanches for one and one-half hours in the classroom, participants will travel to Hidden Valley and during a two-hour hike, study the snowpack and terrain aspects of avalanches and review the basics of avalanche rescue techniques. Visit rmconservancy.org for details and to register.
National Safety Awareness Week is an annual event highlighting resort safety education efforts while increasing slope safety. Visit Loveland Ski Area, Jan. 16-17 for kid-friendly snow safety education with some help from the Loveland Ski Patrol. There is no cost to participate, just keep your eyes peeled for the Loveland Tent set up at the base of the Basin. Ski Patrol demonstration times will be at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. There will also be Ski Patrol demos, sun safety tips, terrain park safety, and helmet information. Meet the Arapahoe Basin Avalanche Dogs in the Safety Village while learning more about safety on the mountain. Visit skiloveland.com for more details.
Among other private offerings, Colorado Wilderness Rides And Guides in Boulder offers American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 Avalanche Course, Jan. 28-31, in Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park. Upon completing this course, students should be able to plan and prepare for travel in avalanche terrain, recognize avalanche terrain, describe a framework for making decisions in avalanche terrain, and apply effective companion rescue techniques.
Arapahoe Basin’s 14th Annual Beacon Bowl and Après Party, Feb. 6, is an all-day event developed by the A-Basin Ski Patrol that includes a beacon search competition, free avalanche dog and beacon demonstrations, and a free après party to benefit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Visit arapahoebasin.com to learn more.
The Alpine Rescue Team based in Evergreen is the only nationally accredited mountain rescue team in Colorado to provide search and rescue services for Clear Creek, Jefferson and Gilpin counties. Its Wednesday trainings are open to the public and include topics like Medical Training: Avy Resuscitation Guidelines on Jan. 27 and Winter Shelters & Survival Skills on March 2. Visit alpinerescueteam.org for more training dates and information.
Avalanches most often occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees according to the National Avalanche Center. The best way to determine whether the terrain is steep enough is to measure it with a slope meter. Slopes less steep than about 30 degrees rarely avalanche, while slopes steeper than about 35 degrees can and often do avalanche. If a slope is steep enough to be exciting, it is probably 35 degrees or steeper. Just because the slope is steep enough to avalanche doesn’t mean that it will; the snow must also be unstable.
A typical snowpack is actually a series of different layers stacked on top of each other. These layers are formed by precipitation, varying temperatures, and wind events that occur throughout the winter. The layers can deviate from very hard icy layers to very soft loose “sugary” layers. Always refer to a local avalanche center like the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for current snowpack conditions and more.
The harder it snows or rains, the more difficult it is for the snowpack to adjust, and the more likely it is for the snowpack to avalanche. Wind can deposit snow at an incredible rate and often leads to avalanching on the down wind sides of ridges and other terrain features. Rapid warming can cause the surficial snow to lose strength and become more prone to avalanching.
The Alpine Rescue Team offers tips for safe travel in avalanche terrain. Remember 30-45 degree slopes are most prone to avalanches; cross slopes one at time; carry a beacon, collapsible probe, shovel and know how to use them; wear gear with Recco reflectors; avoid down wind ridge sides; slides are most common during and right after storms; avoid narrow gullies; stay high on ridges or well into valley floor; beware of nature’s warnings like collapsing layers, recent slides and certain sounds.
The Front Range is prone to persistent slab avalanches that can be triggered at all elevations days to weeks after the last storm. They often propagate across and beyond terrain features that would otherwise confine wind and storm slab avalanches. In some cases they can be triggered remotely, from low-angle terrain or adjacent slopes. Give yourself a wide safety buffer to address the uncertainty.
“Education is the number one resource to have for back country travel in avalanche terrain,” Larimer County Search and Rescue’s Russell Giesey said. “There are many offered throughout Colorado and the mountain west area. An internet search will yield several certified testing agencies. Just because you’ve taken a class and have the proper gear is not a guarantee that you will not trigger a slide. So, it’s not just knowledge, but the skills using that knowledge that will assist you. Anyone can go out and buy the newest and greatest gear, but you have to know how to use it. At a minimum you should have a beacon, probe, and shovel for every member of your group and know how to use them.”
Alpine Rescue Team
American Avalanche Association
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Training
Colorado Avalanche Center
Colorado Mountain Club
Colorado Mountain School
Colorado Wilderness Rides & Guides
Crested Butte Avalanche Center
Friends of Berthoud Pass
Front Range Rescue Dogs
National Avalanche Center
NOAA Glossary of Weather Terms
Rocky Mountain Conservancy
Rocky Mountain Rescue
Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado
U.S. Forecast Center
Originally published in the January 2016 issue of the MMAC Monthly