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Vail Daily skiing: Safety is key in backcountry

Lauren Glendenning
LGLENDENNING@VAILDAILY.COM
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado – Backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Colorado’s Vail Valley might have the allure of deep, untouched powder, but those who choose to enter the backcountry are crossing a line of danger that isn’t always obvious.

Just because backcountry areas are easily accessible from Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas doesn’t mean skiers and snowboarders should take the risk, experts say. Even the most experienced skiers and riders can find themselves in trouble on the other side of the boundary ropes.

“Any time you leave the ski area boundary or leave a trailhead and head into the backcountry, you have to be responsible for your own safety,” said Spencer Logan, a scientist with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “One of the biggest things is to be able to recognize the terrain.”

Snow conditions vary from day to day and from hour to hour. The Vail Ski Patrol has seen shallow snowpack that has sat through clear nights, making it weaker over time. Add that to about three feet of snow that fell in about 10 days, and the snowpack just couldn’t handle the weight, said J.P. McInerny, a Vail Ski Patrol supervisor.

McInerny is talking about backcountry conditions like those that caused the man-made slide that killed snowboarder Jasper ‘Jaz’ McGrath on Jan. 6. McGrath had snowboarded out-of-bounds from Blue Sky Basin and triggered the avalanche himself, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

One problem in the backcountry is that skiers and riders aren’t compacting the snow, which is one of the best ways to stabilize the slopes and prevent avalanches, McInerny said.

Colorado’s snow is famous for its porous grains that leave large air pockets creating a snowpack that will eventually collapse when enough weight comes down on it, he said.

When skiers and riders stand near ropes, looking to flawless powder fields on one side and more tracked-out snow on the other – the temptation is undeniable. But Logan said people also need to realize the rope signifies more than just a boundary.

“There’s a boundary there and it is marked, but it’s very easy to forget that on one side people are working very hard to make it safe, and on the other side, they’re not doing anything,” Logan said.

McInerny and his crews are doing a lot on Vail’s sides of the ropes – from blasting with explosives to cornice-cutting to ski-cutting, all avalanche reduction methods. McInerny said the crews are careful not to use words like “control” or “eliminate” because even their meticulous work is not a guarantee for safety.

“We try to reduce (avalanche danger) to a level we feel comfortable with,” McInerny said. “Our goal is to reduce the likelihood of an in-area avalanche.”

The crews are out in the early morning hours setting off explosives as early as 5 a.m. Avalanche monitoring, though, is happening around the clock, McInerny said.

Vail Mountain alone has four weather stations where avalanche technicians are recording weather information to determine avalanche dangers for each area of the mountain.

“The data gives (the technician) a mental picture in his head on what happened out on those ridges overnight,” McInerny said.

From looking at snowfall levels to the water content in the snow to humidity to the way the snow layers, Vail’s technicians are constantly looking to see if snowpacks have become stronger or weaker, he said.

While all of these studies are going on within the ski boundaries, none of it is happening just inches away on the other sides of the ropes.

“I think people try to outthink our ropes – maybe they think we’re saving powder stashes for ourselves,” McInerny said. “Those areas are closed for a reason. It’s scary that people choose to cut the ropes.”

Taking an avalanche class is the best way to prepare for backcountry skiing or riding, Logan said. Level one classes require about 24 hours of class time, two-thirds of which are spent out in the field – the lessons learned can literally help save lives, he said.

McInerny said the classes are definitely the way to go for anyone looking to get that fresh powder they think they can’t find anywhere in-bounds.

“There’s a big picture there and we hope that more and more people will take advantage of (avalanche) courses out there,” McInerny said.

Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or lglendenning@vaildaily.com.


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