Ten Ways to Avoid Being Killed in an Avalanche

An observer checks out an avalanche that occurred in the Sawatch Range on March 7.
An observer checks out an avalanche that occurred in the Sawatch Range on March 7. Courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center
In Colorado, we tend to hear about avalanches when they have fatal consequences, as was the case with a Garfield County slide caused by snow bikers in February that overtook two people, killing one of them. But on a day like today, when the seasonal transition in Colorado can result in rain or a sloppy mix for Denver but snowstorms in the mountains, avalanches that don't get media attention are happening all the time, and many, if not most, of them could have deadly consequences if folks are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For advice about how to avoid such a fate, we turned to Scott Toepfer, a veteran mountain weather and avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an absolutely indispensable source of information for anyone thinking about venturing into wild parts of the high country.

Toepfer provided us with ten tips that, quite simply, could save your life when you're snow -biking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and more in Colorado at this time of year or any other.

Here they are, in his own words.

click to enlarge The location of a March 8 slide in the Independence Pass area. - COURTESY OF THE COLORADO AVALANCHE INFORMATION CENTER
The location of a March 8 slide in the Independence Pass area.
1. Don't assume the weather where you're at is the same as it is in the mountains.

"This is one of the common mistakes people make this time of year — and it's a big one, especially for people who live along the Front Range urban corridor. It's 60 or 70 degrees, it's March, the days are getting longer, the grass is starting to turn green, and you're starting to think about spring activities. But above 10,000 feet, it's still winter. You may feel the winter avalanche problems are gone, but the snowpack doesn't necessarily see it that way.

"Our typical avalanche problems are with slab avalanches and persistent slab avalanches, which develop from weak snow layers. Once they get buried, they remain weak. So it may feel like summer in Breckenridge when you're going out to lunch, but above 10,000 feet, it's winter — no ifs, ands or buts — and we're still dealing with winter avalanche problems."

2. Beware of the blue-sky syndrome.

"We may have a storm raging through the mountains in the morning, but after the storm clears out, we'll start to see some beautiful blue-sky days — and that does some odd things to people's thought process. They'll think, 'It's an incredibly beautiful day. We've got some fresh snow. Let's go ride!' And they ignore the storm that just blew through and developed fresh avalanches that are just sitting there, waiting for a trigger. It's that blue-sky syndrome, and it can really cause us to lose touch with the snow we're standing on."

3. Looking at a weather forecast before heading out isn't enough.

"People need to get into the habit of monitoring our Colorado Avalanche Information Center website, because we look at observations and forecasts and danger ratings and trends. We can put together a much clearer picture of what's going on. We let you know where avalanches are happening and if the weather forecast is going to increase or decrease the risk, or hold steady with the current set of avalanche risks and problems. I like to think of the website as a Grand Central station for incoming data: a great place to start."

click to enlarge A look at a March 7 avalanche in the vicinity of Berthoud Pass. - COURTESY OF THE COLORADO AVALANCHE INFORMATION CENTER
A look at a March 7 avalanche in the vicinity of Berthoud Pass.
4. Plan out your movements before you make them.

"You need to evaluate the terrain — be able to look and say, 'Hey, that looks like a place that might be a little more risky, but over on this side of the bowl, I might still get good value and I'll be safer.' When you're at the top of a pass, think about, 'If an avalanche goes, where is it going to end up?' And as part of that process, you're going to want to communicate with your partner or partners about how you plan to descend or, in the case of a snowmobile group, how you plan to ascend. You want to pre-think out safe places where you can either hide or stop, and then watch your next partner go."

5. Keep your partners in view.

"This can be tricky, especially on days when the visibility is nil. I hear people toss around the idea of, 'I'm not going to be able to see you for very long, so I'm going to count to twenty and then I'll take off.' That might be great in theory, but what happens if your friend skies down for ten seconds, gets out of sight, and then goes butt over tea kettle and loses a ski — and then you leave ten seconds later and trigger an avalanche on top of him? I think it's important to keep eyes on your partner all the time, because too many things can go wrong and then get worse — that cascading effect. If something starts to go south, you can often get into a really bad situation really fast. That's why I don't like pushing the envelope too much. The consequences of bad decisions can be very dramatic for people."

Continue for five more life-saving avalanche tips from Colorado Avalanche Information Center expert Scott Toepfer.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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