On Wednesday, Colorado suffered its fourth avalanche fatality of 2010 when a snowboarder riding in backcountry terrain was caught in a slide and carried down Steep Gully #1. None of the riders in the party carried avalanche rescue gear. However, while having rescue gear is important, ultimately, education is the most important component of safe skiing and riding in the backcountry.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center lists classes almost every week during the winter months. These three day courses are co-sponsored by organizations like the Colorado Mountain School or held at places like Arapahoe Basin or Silverton, and teach American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level I and Level II courses.
If a three-day course is impractical for now, take the time to educate yourself on the dangers of avalanche terrain.
Some facts to consider:
1) Avalanches are most likely to occur on slopes between 30 degrees and 40 degrees.
These are, unfortunately, prime ski slope angles. When venturing into the backcountry, carry an inclinometer and measure the slope angle before skiing it. Some skiers and riders also mistakenly assume that if they stay to the trees, they'll be safe. However, if the trees are widely spaced enough to ski, they are spaced enough that a slide can happen.
2) If the slope angle is high enough, it doesn't necessarily mean it will slide. The stability of the snowpack is the next factor.
The CAIC forecasts avalanche danger every day. The snowpack changes constantly. The biggest dangers occur when a slab forms atop a loose, unconsolidated layer of "sugar" snow.
3) Weather is a prime factor in the stability of the snowpack.
Recent snowfall, wind, and warming temperatures all affect how unstable the snowpack is.
These are just very basic considerations. The CAIC lists several online resources that go into far more detail. The Forest Service has an Avalanche Awareness website, with extensive information on terrain, weather, snowpack, and how to measure snowpack stability. The Canadian Avalanche Association has an online avalanche first response course. The Utah Avalanche Center has an extensive FAQ with a lot of good information.
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Not having any education dramatically increases your chances of having an avalanche incident. The CAIC accident page lists 20 avalanche incidents in Colorado in 2010 alone. Reading the reports of each incident is both enlightening and frightening.
Having the knowledge may not be enough to save you if you don't pay close attention to the signs. This half-hour film, "A Dozen More Turns," tells the story of five backcountry skiers who go on a New Year's trip in Montana, and the tragic results. The film has some graphic footage, but should be viewed by everybody considering backcountry travel in winter.
Stay safe out there.