VAIL — A packed room of more than 200 people listened eagerly on Thursday evening as avalanche experts and local ski patrollers talked about snow conditions, proper equipment and resources for getting into the backcountry.
If the turnout for the first of the Avalanche Awareness Series, a three-part community outreach program organized by the Vail and Beaver Creek ski patrols, showed anything, then it was that Vail Valley residents are hungry for backcountry knowledge. The series is in its second year, following a smashingly successful three sessions this past ski season.
Local ski patrollers hatched the idea to start a community outreach program this past season after hearing about similar series in mountain communities around the state.
“Breck had a program going for a couple seasons,” said TJ Hartridge, Vail ski patroller. “We went to the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, and they started talking about community outreach. I looked at another patroller, and we thought, ‘We could do that.’ We were blown away at the response last year.”
Hartridge said the seminars will cover different topics each time, adding that the goal isn’t to equip people to get into the backcountry, but simply to encourage people to get more education about the topic.
“It’s only meant to pique interest and have as a tool,” he said.
‘You can always learn more’
The crowd at Thursday’s session included everyone from backcountry novices to avalanche course instructors. Many attendees were seasoned backcountry veterans, who pointed to accidents such as a recent East Vail avalanche that killed local Tony Seibert and injured several others.
“You can never learn enough. I’ve been going out for six or seven years, learning from my parents and friends,” said Edwards resident Logan Jauernigg. “There are ridiculous amounts of people out there now, and I think there’s a false sense of security. People just don’t believe it will be them. That day (Seibert and his friends were out), it was about the chances you take more than a lack of skill. Even though everyone wants to say they would have done something different, I’m sure if I was out there with them that day, I would have been right there on that run with them.”
He said that the gravity of the event spurred him to attend the seminar and bring along his girlfriend, Annika Heid, of Eagle-Vail.
“My boyfriend always goes out in the backcountry, but I haven’t myself,” she said. “I’d like to learn more and maybe go out with him eventually. He brought me out here because he was friends with Tony (Seibert) and decided this is stuff I should learn more about.”
The backcountry boom
Thursday’s presentation covered various topics, including a primer on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s new website.
Avalanche forecaster Becs Hodgetts talked about how to navigate the site, how to interpret the weather forecasts, snow conditions and danger levels.
“We’re a conduit for information,” she cautioned. “We say the problems that we can see, but we’re forecasting for a very big area. Our info should be a very small part of your decision making. You still need to look out the window and make your own forecast and decisions based on what you see out there.”
Her presentation was followed by a discussion of the Vail area’s current snowpack conditions.
Patrollers teamed up with other sponsors such as local ski shops, equipment companies, restaurants and guiding companies to put on the free seminars, saying they saw a need for education in the community. While backcountry skiing is by definition outside of ski resort boundaries, patrollers said they know many people access the backcountry via the resorts.
“It happens everyday, and we think it’s important to educate the community. We know people are going out there, and we want to make sure people are making informed decisions,” said Vail ski patroller Ryan Rogers.
The second and third sessions of the Eagle County Avalanche Awareness Series are scheduled to take place on Tuesday, Feb. 4 from 8 to 9:30 p.m. and Tuesday, March 11 from 7 to 9 p.m.
For more information about the Eagle County Avalanche Awareness Series, contact Vail Ski Patrol at 970-754-4610 or check out Vail Ski Patrol on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vail.skipatrol.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org.