‘You are your buddy’s only chance’ in an avalanche
Vail CO Colorado
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado – This winter hasn’t been the winter of snow, but it has been the winter of avalanches.
Skiers and snowboarders who showed up for Beaver Creek, Colorado’s avalanche-beacon training class were interested in the risks – they heard about snowboarder Jasper “Jaz” McGrath, who died in a backcountry avalanche near Vail, Colorado’s Blue Sky Basin on Jan. 6, and were concerned about the risks.
After the course, which ski patrollers stressed was not the equivalent of a Level 1 avalanche course, 13-year-old Branden Currey was convinced to stay in bounds.
“This is a very bad avalanche season – it seems very dangerous (to go into the backcountry),” Branden said. “Things can happen.”
While Beaver Creek ski patrollers Tyler Chipman and Dick Brooks weren’t purposely using scare tactics in their lessons, the group understood through the course that taking a chance with Mother Nature is inherently risky.
“Don’t go outside the (ski area) boundaries unless you’re properly equipped and know how to use your equipment,” Chipman said. “Know that every time, if you’re deciding to ski (in the backcountry), you’re putting yourself at risk.”
Chipman and Brooks went over the science of snow, mainly as it relates to avalanche danger. They showed the class of about 30 skiers and snowboarders how they could create avalanches in the backcountry.
And when it comes to unpredictable snowpacks, even the most experienced skiers and snowboarders could end up in a slide, Chipman said.
“You can never know too much,” he said.
Colorado is notorious for having unsafe snow – it’s light and fluffy and doesn’t contain a lot of moisture, meaning the snow consistently forms weak snowpacks.
“Once you get a weak layer in the snowpack, it’s very hard for it to solve itself,” Brooks said.
If skiers and riders are still determined to go into the backcountry, Chipman and Brooks say to always bring three important tools: a probe, a beacon and a shovel. Bringing along at least one partner is equally important.
“A single beacon is like having no beacon,” Brooks said.
Beacons, or electronic tracking devices, talk to one another. A skier who has one and gets buried is helpless if there aren’t others nearby who also have beacons. And just because backcountry skiers have beacons and other tools doesn’t mean they should assume they’ll be fine, Chipman said.
“You need partners you can trust – you need to know each other’s skills up and down,” he said. “You’re only as strong as your weakest link in the backcountry.”
The patrollers went over the various rules for backcountry skiing in a two-hour lesson. They stressed how important it is to never ski alone, and when skiing with a big group, skiers need to ski lines one at a time and spot one another, Chipman said.
Skiers and riders need a game plan in place before they enter the backcountry – they need an escape route should a slide happen so that others in the group know the skier buried tried to ski left or right as the slide happened.
Plans like that can shave time off the search, leaving more time for the rescue.
In addition to lessons about snowpack, avalanche dangers, beacons and general backcountry rules, Chipman and Brooks told the group never to panic should someone get buried.
“Don’t freak out and leave right away to get help because help will only be coming for a body,” Brooks said. “You are your buddy’s only chance.”