Beware in the backcountry |

Beware in the backcountry

Matt Zalaznick
Daily file photoSki patrollers say the biggest dangers in the backcountry are avalanches and poor preparation for the weather and terrain.

Why? Because by the time they go for help and a better-trained rescue crew is assembled and reaches the buried skier, there’s a good chance it will be too late, expert backcountry travelers say.

“The people you go with are liable to be your only chance of survival if you’re caught in an avalanche,” says Beaver Creek ski patrolman Barret Langendorfer, who conducted a backcountry workshop at the Avon Library Thursday night.

Patrollers say there have been several incidents in which a buried skier has been rescuable but has died because friends went for help instead of trying to save the victim.

The biggest dangers in the backcountry are avalanches and poor preparation for the weather and terrain, Langendorfer says.

“The best piece of equipment you can take is yourself and your knowledge,” he said.

Knowledge means having precise information about past, present and future weather in the area, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the terrain one is planning to travel.

“One of the most important things isn’t knowing what the weather’s going to do but what the weather has done in the past,” says Beaver Creek ski patrolman Jim Clancy.

Snow changes in consistency as it sits on the ground and the weather changes, says Clancy, and colder temperatures can radically change the stability of the snowpack. A principal in gauging avalanche danger is snow is more unstable after a snowfall. That’s true in Colorado – partly.

“We can get significantly less stable after cold, clear weather,” Clancy says.

As it sits on the ground, snow layers itself, potentially creating surfaces ripe for sliding. For instance, after a period of cold weather, the surface of the snowpack will become hard and slick. If several inches of fresh snow falls on top of the layer, the new snow has a better chance of sliding.

Langendorfer recommends skiers and snowboarders wait at least day after a big snowfall before heading in to the backcountry.

“Ski in bounds for a day –it’s going to be great if we get a foot of snow,” Langendorfer says.

Instability can also be created in the spring when the top layers start to melt. When that happens, water percolates down through the snowpack and can lubricate a hard-packed layer, if one exists.

“You don’t want to be out in the spring in the afternoon very much,” Clancy says.

Each skier or snowboarder in the group should also be fully equipped for the backcountry and trained adequately in avalanche rescue, Langendorfer says.

Careful planning of a backcountry trip is also critical in order that all the skiers and snowboarders in the party are “on the same page,” Langendorfer says.

Everyone in the party should agree they can –and want to – ski the same terrain, he says.

“Two common threads in mountains accidents are one, late starts, and the second is poor route finding,” he says.

Once out in the wilderness, the group should stick together, he adds.

There are also several ways skiers and snowboarders can evaluate terrain to avoid danger, says Beaver Creek ski patrolman Tyler Chapman.

Some tips:

– Avoid slopes of 30 degrees or greater.

– Do not ski above or under cornices.

– Though more arduous, travel on windward side of ridges to avoid unstable, wind-loaded areas.

– Don’t travel along cliff bands.

“You’re asking to get swept over a cliff if you do start an avalanche,” Chapman says.

There are times in the backcountry when it may be impossible to avoid avalanche-prone areas. When crossing such an area, members of a party should cross one at a time, travel in the same track, loosen pole and pack straps and pick an escape route in case of an avalanche is triggered.

“Be able to get rid of any excess gear you have,” Chapman said. “Skis can be like anchors in cement.”

Backcountry travelers should leave their itinerary with friends or family so, if there is an emergency, the skier or snowboarder is missed when they don’t return home when they were supposed to.

However, a group of backcountry travelers also should be willing to cancel the trip and go home if conditions appear too perilous, Langendorfer said.

“Be prepared to turn back; be prepared to go out there and say the hazards are too high, we shouldn’t ski this today,” Langendorfer says. “Maybe we shouldn’t be out here at all.”

“It’s hard with a group,” he adds. “Everybody wants to go, go, go.”

Comprehensive avalanche information is available on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s Web site,

Heavy snow will boost avalanche danger

The recent warm weather has likely created backcountry conditions ripe for avalanches when the next heavy snowfall hits the mountains.

A heavy dose of fresh snow in the backcountry is likely to slide off the slick, hard-packed layer of snow that’s been solidified by this week’s spring-like days and chilly nights, says Tim Cochrane, head of Vail Mountain Rescue.

“Right now, people are venturing out into the backcountry and they’ve got to be careful they don’t trigger the layer underneath,” Cochrane says. “It’s like ball-bearings underneath the main snow crust.”

According to both Cochrane and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, avalanche danger is not exceptionally high at the moment. The Avalanche Information Center classifies the danger as “moderate” with pockets of “considerable” risk in the Gore and Sawatch ranges surrounding the Vail Valley.

A report on the agency’s Web site does warn backcountry travelers there’s a high probability of humans triggering avalanches. For example, an avalanche Wednesday slid 25 feet below a snowboarder on the west side of the Tenmile Range near Copper Mountain, just across Vail Pass.

Natural avalanches have also been reported on the peaks of the Gore Range.

Heavy snow in the next few days, Cochrane says, could send avalanche danger “through the roof.”

“This time of year is not a great time to go into the backcountry,” says Beaver Creek ski patrolman Jim Clancy.

An avalanche doesn’t have to be one of those alpine monsters shown on the Discovery Channel to hurt or skill. Small slides can do plenty of damage, adds fellow-Beaver Creek Patrolman Barret Langendorfer.

Most slides that hurt people, he says, are caused by other skiers, snowboarders and backcountry travelers.

“The avalanches that hurt people are usually caused by people,” he says. “They’re usually triggered by something you do or something somebody in your party does.”

A way to check stability is to dig a pit in the snow to examine the layers in the snowpack. Right now, a pit would show a nice, cohesive layer on top and much less stable “sugar” underneath, Cochrane says.

The snowpack is melting from the bottom up, he says.

“That sugar is what’s going to slide,” Cochrane says. “People go out and get a false sense of security. The snowpack looks good but they don’t understand what’s going on underneath. That’s why they have to dig a pit.”

“If we get a big dump,” he adds, “people should wait a day and let it settle.”

Even more traveled backcountry spots will become more treacherous after heavy snow, Cochrane says.

“There’s a ton of people skiing the East Vail Chutes. We’ve beat snowpack into submission, but if we get a 6- to 12-inches dump, people have to understand it will just slide,” Cochrane says. “It will shoot danger up high until get the snow gets a chance to settle.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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