Don’t slip, slide away | VailDaily.com

Don’t slip, slide away

Stephen Lloyd Wood

A large avalanche on Buffalo Mountain, near Silverthorne, was triggered by natural causes Sunday afternoon. The avalanche can be seen on the left face as well as the center cliff area. There was no indication of any people involved or caught in the slide, said John Agnew, a mission coordinator for the Summit County Search and Rescue. The slide is the largest in the county recently, he said.

That’s the overall message from the Beaver Creek ski patrollers these days in their yearly quest to inform local skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and anybody else taking their lives into their own hands by heading out of bounds and farther into the wilderness.

“The backcountry is unpredictable,” says Tyler Chapman, who’s working his fifth year on patrol. “It’ll get anybody.”

Chapman is one of five Beaver Creek patrollers conducting a series of seminars and workshops on avalanche safety this season. At least five dozen backcountry enthusiasts attended a recent event at the Avon Public Library. More seminars are planned next month.

Practice, practice, practice

Chapman’s role is to introduce future enthusiasts to a list of equipment necessary for safe travelling in mountainous, snow-covered terrain, including a shovel, an avalanche beacon, releasable skis, proper clothing, food and water, a first aid kit – and matches, “in case you wind up staying out there overnight.”

All that stuff is useless, however, if you don’t practice using it, he says.

Recommended Stories For You

“If something happens, you’ve got to know how to use this stuff,” Chapman says.

The most important item on the list is a good partner, someone you can trust when the chips are down, he says.

“You’ve got to have a good relationship with all your partners, and everyone should be on the same page,” he says. “If you have to go for help, you’ve just kissed your buddy goodbye.”

Common sense should dictate places to avoid in the backcountry, he says, such as:

– Cornices –“Don’t travel beneath them.”

– Gullies – “Terrain you want to avoid.”

– Cliffs – “You don’t want to be on a big open face with a cliff band below you.”

About the weather

Chris Bellino, a patroller for six years, likes to talk about the weather.

“Anything that happens with weather affects the snowpack,” he says, leading the group into a discussion of how rain, wind and frost events lead to the creation of distinct layers in the snow – layers that with a trigger, such as skier moving through, can easily come crashing down a mountainside, with disastrous results.

“Weather is the most important factor in knowing what the snow is doing or has done,” Bellino says.

The Colorado High Country is one of the most “notorious” regions in the world for avalanches, he says, due to its high winds and frequent, relatively dry snowfalls. Sunny, warm spells mixed with nighttime cold spells often lead to treacherous conditions.

“Warm temperatures help snow bond better, and our snowpack can deteriorate quickly,” he says. “Unfortunately, the opposite doesn’t happen.

“And a good rain crust?” he adds. “That lasts a long time and sets up a really bad avalanche danger.”

Snow science

Patroller John Clancy goes over ways the backcountry traveller can analyze snowpack before descending an untracked face.

The most hands-on way to inspect what’s underneath the surface is to dig a “hasty pit,” Clancy says, revealing a sheer wall of snow with all its layers. Of course the pit should be located at about the same elevation and polar aspect as the one the backcountry traveller intends to ski or snowboard.

Clancy also recommends heeding the avalanche hazard ratings issued by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for the region you plan to visit. “Low” means it’s a “pretty good” time to travel in the backcountry, he says; “moderate” means “it’s time to start thinking about it”; “considerable,” “high” or “extreme” typically mean “go to the movies, or get on a chairlift.”

Analyzing snow conditions is a science, says Clancy.

“People are writing theses about this stuff,” he says. “Unfortunately, all the real experts are already dead. They learned everything in an avalanche.”

“Don’t turn your brains off’

Patroller Chris Berdouley says identifying avalanche terrain is key. He suggests taking along an inclinometer, which measures the angle of slope. Almost all avalanches occur on slopes of between 30 and 45 degrees, similar to many popular local black-diamond and double-diamond ski runs, such as Gengis Kahn at Vail and Bald Eagle at Beaver Creek, he says.

“We like to ski steep slopes because it gives the feeling of flying,” says Berdouley. “But you’ve got to keep thinking. Don’t turn your brains off because things in the backcountry are just so beautiful.”

A victim’s “only real chance’

Ronnie Burnett, a five-year veteran of the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol, says the No. 1 rule to follow if there is an avalanche in the backcountry is: “Remain calm.”

“If you’re buddy’s in a slide, you don’t want to go down as well,” he says.

To a crowd that, for the most part, listens quietly – perhaps in deep thought about whether they truly want to visit the backcountry, after all – Burnett demonstrates how use a typical avalanche beacon.

Reiterating how important it is to keep a cool demeanor and know how to use safety equipment, Burnett says by the time the ski patrol or a mountain rescue team can be summoned, it’s a body-recovery mission.

“Just remember, party members are an avalanche victim’s only real chance of survival,” he says.

For information about future avalanche safety workshops held by the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol, call Patrol Headquarters at 845-6610.

Avalanche info

Hotlines:

– Beaver Creek Ski Patrol – 970-845-6652; 845-6610

– Vail (local) – 970-479-4652

– Aspen (local) – 970-920-1664

– Summit County and surrounding areas – 970-668-0600

– Durango and the southern mountains – 970-247-8187

– Denver/Boulder and statewide – 303-275-5360

– Fort Collins and statewide – 970-482-0457

– Colorado Springs and statewide – 719-520-0020

Web sites:

– Colorado Avalanche Information Center – http://geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche

– Cyberspace Avalanche Center – http://www.csac.org

– American Avalanche Institute – http://www.avalanchecourse.com

– Alpine World Ascents – http://www.alpineworldascents.com/avalanche.asp

– Crested Butte Mountain Guides – http://www.crestedbutteguides.com

========================

(((glance-541)))

Avalanche facts

– What is an avalanche?

An avalanche is a mass of snow sliding down a mountainside. Avalanches are also called “snowslides.”

– What causes avalanches?

An avalanche occurs when the force of gravity exceeds the strength of bonds between snow grains of the snow cover. There are four ingredients of an avalanche:

1 – Steep slopes

2 – Snow cover

3 – Weak layers in the snow cover

4 – Triggers

– When are avalanches most likely?

Avalanche dang increases with major snowstorms and periods of thaw. About 2,000 avalanches are reported to the Avalanche Center in an average winter. More than 80 percent of these fall during or just after large snowstorms. The most avalanche-prone months are, in order, February, March and January. Avalanches caused by thaw occur most often in April.

– Where do avalanches occur?

About 90 percent of all avalanches start on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees; about 98 percent of all avalanches occur on slopes of 25 to 50 degrees. Avalanches release most often on slopes above timberline that face away from prevailing winds. Avalanches can run, however, on small slopes well below timberline, such as gullies, road cuts and small openings in the trees.

Most avalanches occur in the backcountry, outside of developed ski areas.

– How can backcountry users recognize avalanche terrain?

Most large avalanche paths are obvious: an open slope, bowl, or gully above timberline that leads to a swath through the trees. But small avalanche paths in the trees can be just as dangerous. Slope angle is the most important factor, so you should carry a slope meter. Bent or damaged trees are good clues that show where avalanches have run in the past.

– Wow can you keep from getting caught in an avalanche?

You can reliably avoid avalanches by recognizing and avoiding avalanche terrain. Travel at the valley floor away from large avalanche runouts, along ridgetops above avalanche paths, in dense timber or on slopes of 25 degrees or less that do not have steeper slopes above them. Avoid cornices on ridgetops.

– How can you recognize unstable snow?

When the snow cover is very unstable, nature often broadcasts clear danger signals. Fresh avalanches are the best clue. Snow that cracks, collapses or makes hollow sounds is also unstable. Weak layers that are found by digging snow pits are signs of unstable snow. Snow that has become wet from thaw or rain can be dangerous.

– What rescue gear should you carry?

You should always have an avalanche transceiver, also called a “beacon,” as well as a shovel and a collapsible or ski-pole probe. You should practice frequently to be proficient in using your beacon.

– What can you do if you are caught in an avalanche?

Surviving avalanches can depend on luck; therefore, it is always better to avoid them in the first place. Remember that only one of three victims buried without a beacon survives. If you are caught, first try to escape to the side, or grab a tree or rock. If you are knocked down, get rid of your poles, skis and any packs. Swim with the avalanche to try to stay on top and avoid trees. When the avalanche slows down, reach the surface or make a pocket.

– Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Avalanche info

Hotlines:

– Beaver Creek Ski Patrol – 970-845-6652; 845-6610

– Vail (local) – 970-479-4652

– Aspen (local) – 970-920-1664

– Summit County and surrounding areas – 970-668-0600

– Durango and the southern mountains – 970-247-8187

– Denver/Boulder and statewide – 303-275-5360

– Fort Collins and statewide – 970-482-0457

– Colorado Springs and statewide – 719-520-0020

Web sites:

– Colorado Avalanche Information Center – http://geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche

– Cyberspace Avalanche Center – http://www.csac.org

– American Avalanche Institute – http://www.avalanchecourse.com

– Alpine World Ascents – http://www.alpineworldascents.com/avalanche.asp

– Crested Butte Mountain Guides – http://www.crestedbutteguides.com

========================

(((glance-541)))

Avalanche facts

– What is an avalanche?

An avalanche is a mass of snow sliding down a mountainside. Avalanches are also called “snowslides.”

– What causes avalanches?

An avalanche occurs when the force of gravity exceeds the strength of bonds between snow grains of the snow cover. There are four ingredients of an avalanche:

1 – Steep slopes

2 – Snow cover

3 – Weak layers in the snow cover

4 – Triggers

– When are avalanches most likely?

Avalanche dang increases with major snowstorms and periods of thaw. About 2,000 avalanches are reported to the Avalanche Center in an average winter. More than 80 percent of these fall during or just after large snowstorms. The most avalanche-prone months are, in order, February, March and January. Avalanches caused by thaw occur most often in April.

– Where do avalanches occur?

About 90 percent of all avalanches start on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees; about 98 percent of all avalanches occur on slopes of 25 to 50 degrees. Avalanches release most often on slopes above timberline that face away from prevailing winds. Avalanches can run, however, on small slopes well below timberline, such as gullies, road cuts and small openings in the trees.

Most avalanches occur in the backcountry, outside of developed ski areas.

– How can backcountry users recognize avalanche terrain?

Most large avalanche paths are obvious: an open slope, bowl, or gully above timberline that leads to a swath through the trees. But small avalanche paths in the trees can be just as dangerous. Slope angle is the most important factor, so you should carry a slope meter. Bent or damaged trees are good clues that show where avalanches have run in the past.

– Wow can you keep from getting caught in an avalanche?

You can reliably avoid avalanches by recognizing and avoiding avalanche terrain. Travel at the valley floor away from large avalanche runouts, along ridgetops above avalanche paths, in dense timber or on slopes of 25 degrees or less that do not have steeper slopes above them. Avoid cornices on ridgetops.

– How can you recognize unstable snow?

When the snow cover is very unstable, nature often broadcasts clear danger signals. Fresh avalanches are the best clue. Snow that cracks, collapses or makes hollow sounds is also unstable. Weak layers that are found by digging snow pits are signs of unstable snow. Snow that has become wet from thaw or rain can be dangerous.

– What rescue gear should you carry?

You should always have an avalanche transceiver, also called a “beacon,” as well as a shovel and a collapsible or ski-pole probe. You should practice frequently to be proficient in using your beacon.

– What can you do if you are caught in an avalanche?

Surviving avalanches can depend on luck; therefore, it is always better to avoid them in the first place. Remember that only one of three victims buried without a beacon survives. If you are caught, first try to escape to the side, or grab a tree or rock. If you are knocked down, get rid of your poles, skis and any packs. Swim with the avalanche to try to stay on top and avoid trees. When the avalanche slows down, reach the surface or make a pocket.

– Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center