Avalanche awareness series returns Monday
IF YOU GO...
What: Second installment of the Eagle County Avalanche Awareness Series
Where: Vail Cascade
When: Monday from 7 to 9 p.m., soft drinks and food beforehand while supplies last
How much: free
More info: Call Vail Ski Patrol at 970-754-4610 or visit the Vail Ski Patrol Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/vail.skipatrol.
VAIL — It has been a relatively quiet avalanche season in Eagle County, and backcountry users are hoping it stays that way.
Local skier Drew Rouse said he’s been skiing up in the Gore Range recently, and he’s noticed safer conditions than usual. Whereas last year, a more active avalanche year, there were big slides that went all the way to the bottom, Rouse said the mountains have been quieter this season.
“It seems like the slides have been higher up, not coming to the bottom like they were last year, and that makes me feel better,” he said.
He adds that he’s been able to ski lines this year that he’s avoided due to dangerous conditions the past few years.
“It seems to be the case in Eagle County that you’ve got to pick and choose your years. We’re skiing a lot of lines we haven’t skied in awhile this year,” he said. “Of course, people should still use their heads. It’s not an excuse to be stupid.”
Using your head is the general theme behind the Eagle County Avalanche Awareness Series, which returns with its second installment of the season on Monday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Vail Cascade Resort.
Now in its third season, the ski patrol-sponsored series provides an opportunity for locals and visitors to the area to learn about backcountry and avalanche awareness through topical information and valuable advice. The events include information booths from backcountry gear retailers and backcountry educators, and each session features presentations on topics such as snowpack, current observations in the backcountry, crew resource management, human factors and National Forest access.
“It’s never too soon for outdoor enthusiasts seeking an out-of-bounds experience to start learning about avalanche awareness and backcountry preparedness,” said Elizabeth Howe, Vail Mountain’s senior director of mountain operations. “We’re proud to be continuing the Eagle County Avalanche Awareness Series and hope to see both new guests and those who are already familiar with the topics and simply want to stay current.”
‘The missing ingredient’
Scott Toepfer, a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, attributes the quiet avalanche season to a lack of big snowstorms. With the majority of January snow coming a few inches at a time, there haven’t been any huge storms to trigger big slides, he said.
However, that doesn’t mean that avalanches won’t happen. Toepfer reported four skier-triggered avalanches in the Vail Pass area on Thursday. The slides were somewhat big but didn’t cause any injuries or deaths. Toepfer said the slopes slid thanks to weak layers of underlying snow that were created in December and early January. When rain falls on the snow surface and then freezes, a layer of ice is formed called a “rain crust.” When snow piles on top of that crust, the right trigger can cause an avalanche.
“Those weak layers in the snowpack are going to haunt us for a while,” Toepfer said. “It’s going to be a lingering problem. The missing ingredient would be a big storm. If we got a huge storm that left a lot of snow, we’d have some backcountry problems.”
Toepfer added that knowing the snow conditions are just one piece of staying safe in the backcountry.
“It’s not just about the snowpack and the weak layers. It’s also people’s perception and behaviors out there. It’s how people behave in avalanche terrain,” he said. “A lot of times people are making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s not easy to forecast avalanches or read snowpack, but how humans behave is the part that is most difficult to predict.”
The human factor
A big part of Monday’s avalanche awareness event will be dedicated to training people to make the right decisions. Max Forgensi, lead snow ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, will be talking about the “human factor.”
People tend to make riskier decisions when human factors are involved. Those situations include traveling in familiar terrain, being committed to getting to a certain summit or slope, or encountering other people in the backcountry.
“We’ve identified the enemy in the backcountry, and it is ourselves,” Forgensi said. “The human factor is essentially the decision-making trap. If you can identify these human-factor traps and take some deliberate steps to correct errors, you might not fall into these traps when they arise.”
Forgensi said he also plans to talk about exits to backcountry terrain from the ski resorts. He expects a big turnout for the series, and he’s not surprised by the response so far.
“Backcountry access is growing at a pretty high rate, and I’m glad people are making an effort to get more education before going out there,” he said.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.