Beyond Acclimatization: Avalanche Safety

Spring of 2019 in the Colorado high country has certainly been one to remember. Unsure of where work would take me, I waited until the last week to commit to a ski pass for the season, and after all the storms we’ve seen, I’m glad I did. And I can tell that many others are just as excited. I’ve never seen so many people on the weekend slopes and on the surrounding highways.

Meanwhile, the central mountain region has seen a record number of avalanches and fatalities, and Colorado retains the highest statistics in the country. People from all over the world come for world-class skiing, but many experienced locals have been avalanche victims. We often assume they are skiers and snowboarders, but avalanche fatalities happen just as often to snowmobilers and backcountry hikers. Another misconception is that these avalanches are happening exclusively in the backcountry, which they are not. Three young men this year barely escaped an inbounds avalanche at Breckenridge ski area, while two weren’t so fortunate in New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley.

But the wild Colorado backcountry still beckons and many continue to answer. Having spent over ten years in Summit County, home to Colorado’s greatest number of peaks over 14,000 ft., my family and I are regulars in the backcountry, in all seasons. Experiencing these mountains in all kinds of conditions can make you much more aware of the risks inherent in the outdoor recreation scene here, but it clearly does not guarantee your safety.

This coming April, I’ll be on a trek to one of the 10th Mountain Division huts, a series of remote cabins, most of which are only accessible by foot, snowshoe or ski. In the summer, the trails tend to be well-maintained and obvious, but I’ve seen first-hand that conditions in snow, even during a mild season, can make the commute much more difficult and much more dangerous. Carrying all your supplies on your back certainly increases your vulnerability and decreases your ability to respond quickly to unexpected events, as you are more liable to sink deeper into loose snow-pack.

Shrine Mountain Inn, one of the more easily-accessed huts in the 10th Mountain Division system, even offers running water and electricity, as is within most cellular networks.

As you may have been taught, luck favors the prepared. If there’s one way to tell a local from a visitor in the high country here, it’s how prepared they are to be outdoors in variable conditions, and as the sole resident on the upcoming hut trip, I will be passing on all the proper safety precautions to my less-experienced San Francisco counterparts.

Expeditions to more popular huts at lower elevations during mild winters tend to be more about preparing comforts: boots, snowshoes, skis that fit well; warm, dry layers; plenty of water; etc. What makes me especially wary of the increased danger and the necessity of avalanche equipment is the alternating warm weather and snow storms. This means several alternating layers of heavy snow and light pack, making large slabs of snow (and ice) more prone to letting loose and leveling everything in their way.

While there are some obvious measures you can take and gear you can pack to boost your ability to respond in case of an avalanche, professionals across the state can’t recommend official avalanche safety certification highly enough. It’s available across the globe, thanks to the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), and Colorado is one of the best places to get certified.

Technology has come a long way when it comes to avalanche safety, but the three things AIARE recommends you carry while in the backcountry are a transceiver (a beacon), a probe (for finding buried victims) and a shovel. Local conditions are updated daily on Colorado’s Information Marketplace Avalanche Information Center. Be sure to check the very day you plan to be in areas of high risk, and as frequently as possible.

On a closing note, keep in mind that avalanche safety measures aren’t always as intuitive as carrying a shovel. One major statistic we should all keep in mind is that most avalanches don’t happen on their own, and are caused by the victims themselves, often because there is more than one person traversing a slope at a time. In this case, safety is not in numbers: one person on a slope at a time.

I love Colorado, I love the mountains, I love the ski slopes, I always appreciate the vast open wilderness of the Rockies, and I’m looking forward to many more upcoming excursions in them. Hopefully this has armed you with some knowledge to better equip your daring high country adventures. It is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg, however, and on top of certification and gear, there is no end to the value that actual experience adds.

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

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