VAIL, Colorado - While huge storms haven't yet dumped massive amounts of avalanche-prone snow throughout the area, now is the time to start thinking about backcountry avalanches and how to avoid them, and when necessary, survive them.
The avalanche danger in the area is rated as moderate, but don't let lower snowpack accumulations fool you into thinking terrain is slide-proof right now.
John Snook, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said a shallower snowpack can have more concerns than a deeper snowpack. The shallow snowpacks around Colorado right now are also creating concerns for future snowpacks, he said.
There are hard slabs that end up resting on weak snow bases - a bad combination, Snook said.
"People are still triggering slides out there," Snook said, adding that there have been avalanches reported recently at Loveland Pass and the Ten Mile Range.
There are avalanche safety classes around the state, with tons of classes offered in December (a list is available at avalanche.state.co.us). The U.S. Forest Service has an informative website with basic avalanche information, too, at fsavalanche.org.
Avalanche forecasters aren't telling people to stay out of the backcountry, but they do want anyone going into the backcountry to be as prepared as possible.
You need gear, sure, but you need to know how and when to use that gear. The biggest thing people need for backcountry preparedness is education.
The lack of knowledge out there is something that has been troubling Aaron Carlson, executive director of Friends of CAIC, a nonprofit foundation that raises money for CAIC.
Carlson has spent many days skiing in East Vail, and he has noticed an influx of people back there "without the proper gear, and I guarantee the knowledge, heading through the gate to capture that sought after powder."
"East Vail's a tricky area because it's getting more and more popular," Carlson said.
Egos and ignorance make a dangerous combination, Carlson said, and unfortunately there are plenty of backcountry skiers and snowboarders with both.
East Vail is easily accessible, which is great for backcountry skiers and snowboarders who know what they're doing and can get back there quickly, but the problem with its easy access is that those who shouldn't be back there can find their way, too.
"You see people up there with no backpacks, no gear," Carlson said. "I think there's just a lack of knowledge."
Know where you're going
Carlson said he hopes more people will learn about backcountry safety before going into place like East Vail, an area with a tendency to slide.
"People are going to go no matter what you say, but you need to be thinking about these things if you're going to go," Carlson said.
Vail Ski Patrol Director Julie Rust said it's critical for people going into the backcountry to know what they're doing, and to have a partner who also knows what they're doing.
"You need to know where you're going, have taken some avalanche classes, have the proper equipment and know how to use it," Rust said. "You need to know it's in working order, and the same for your partner, and then you still need to be incredibly diligent. Take nothing for granted, ever."
Vail Ski Patrol does what it can when skiers and snowboarder go out of bounds, but the Ski Patrol's primary concern and duty is for the thousands of in-bounds acres at Vail Mountain.
"We can't guarantee we can get back there (into the adjacent backcountry terrain)," Rust said. "You're leaving all services behind."
Sure, the Vail Ski Patrol has and does respond to rescue missions in the backcountry, but on a day when every patroller is needed in-bounds, there's no guarantees.
"We're very judicious about when we commit our people to a rescue," Rust said.
It's just one reason backcountry educated people like Carlson are so concerned to see others in the backcountry without any knowledge.
Snook said people really need to make smart decisions.
"People see other people going in (places like East Vail) so they assume it's safe," Snook said. "Those people going in may have a high level of experience. If you go in there unaware, you can't just follow others - you can get yourself into trouble."
And people who go into the backcountry unprepared are also making it dangerous for those who have done their homework.
"There's nothing better than skiing great snow and great terrain with some of my best friends, but it's discouraging because every year there's more and more people that just don't have a clue," Carlson said.
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.