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Knowledge essential for backcountry safety

Heading to the backcountry?

If you are, you need:

• An avalanche transceiver, or beacon.

• A shovel.

• A probe.

• And the knowledge about how to use them.

Source: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

EAGLE COUNTY — New snow is a good thing, but when new snow falls on old snow in the backcountry, the avalanche danger can rise right along with the snow depth.

After a weekend of heavy snow, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center raised its forecast of backcountry avalanche danger to “considerable” — about midway up a five-level scale.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center Deputy Director Brian Lazar said he expects that forecast to hold steady for the next several days, especially as more snow falls.

“If you give the snowpack time to adjust, (the danger) will ease. But with more snow and wind in the forecast, it will probably stay where it is.”

At the edge of the backcountry, the Colorado Department of Transportation works through the winter to ensure that known slide zones don’t stop traffic, or worse, bury cars with people in them.

On Tuesday, the department spent almost two hours blasting slide zones on Vail Pass in an area called The Narrows, which is about halfway between East Vail and the summit. Department spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said the highway was closed in both directions for about 90 minutes.

The Department of Transportation spends a sizeable amount of time trying to minimize avalanche danger along state highways. Slide-prone areas on Loveland and Berthoud passes this season have a new, automated system that uses compressed air. But Vail Pass slides still have to be triggered the old-fashioned way: shooting explosives into the slide zone.

Avalanche Education

While the current avalanche danger away from the ski areas is considerable, that doesn’t mean all of the backcountry is dangerous. Lazar said that those who understand the terrain they’re in and who can spot obvious hazardous zones — including slopes steeper than 30 degrees — can still travel safely in the backcountry.

As winter adventures in the backcountry have become more popular, Colorado Mountain College offers classroom training for those who’d like to head beyond ski area boundaries. The college uses instructional materials from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and runs classes for the institute’s Level 1 and Level 2 certification.

The classes fill fast, and there’s usually a waiting list.

J.C. Norling is an assistant dean and avalanche safety instructor at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards. He said many of the people taking the classes are either already skiing the backcountry or want to venture beyond taking a lift up at Vail, then skiing to the surrounding areas.

Norling said classes start with teaching students how to interpret the information on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s web page. That allows people to better understand terms ranging from aspect and elevation to the difference between storm-loaded and wind-loaded snow slabs.

“There’s a lot of wind slab right now on a weak layer,” Norling said.

Safety in the backcountry boils down to applying all that knowledge to understanding problems. From there, skiers need to understand aspect (the direction the slope faces), elevation and slope.

“As a recreational skier, you want to know where the problem is and avoid it,” Norling said.

Recognizing Danger

Right now, slopes greater than 30 degrees, facing north or east, and at or above treeline are all potential problems.

Backcountry users also need to understand the terrain both above and below the paths they’ve chosen, Norling said. Sometimes, avalanche terrain is obvious. But scouting terrain can be tricky — even for experienced backcountry users.

Norling said a common mistake for novices is selection of an uphill path, Norling said. People will sometimes head into a chute or a bowl that could be right in a slide’s path. Norling suggested that people stay on ridgelines as much as possible.

Between informed use of the information center’s web page and good map reading, just about all of a safe trip can be plotted before a skier heads out in the morning, Norling said.

Understanding the gear, the terrain and the information available can make backcountry adventure a lot safer, Norling said. But it’s up to individuals to be respectful, and understand how their actions might affect others in the area.

Knowledge just makes the adventure better, Norling said.

“It’s a great sport,” he said. “People love to be out there. But people need to know it’s OK to say ‘no’ to something they aren’t comfortable with.”


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