Eagle County Sheriff: Engage your brain before engaging the backcountry (column)
“Engage your brain before engaging the backcountry.” — Dan Smith, Vail Mountain Rescue
Adventure is in our DNA: It’s the reason some of us live here. The wind blowing fresh powder on our faces as we cascade down impossibly steep runs, defying the laws of gravity and walking from the slopes to our favorite restaurant in the town’s favorite uniform of clunky boots and noisy skiwear, while speaking of tales of danger and speed that are met with a response of, “Oh, you think that was tough, last week I …”
While our bank accounts may reflect the lifestyle of a ski bum, our hearts are filled with a determination to push all limits. In our quest for the next amazing exploit, we must curtail the adrenaline and engage a few brain cells on our way out the door. We can still have an adventuresome spirit, while remaining alive to explore another day.
Our unpredictable winter season has created ideal avalanche conditions. The early freeze, thaw, then snow again has developed a deep instability that is not visible on the surface but can be deadly with one awkward step. One skier had been skiing for three days in the same area when he decided to move slightly to the right, to venture on fresh snow. Those few feet were enough to plummet him down the mountain in an avalanche, which he barely survived.
Here’s some information that will help, as you explore the “unknown.” First, never cross those brightly colored ropes at the ski areas. Many have died within sight of those boundaries. Evaluations are made that establish designated borderlines, based upon fluctuating snow conditions. Being nearby is not the same as being within, and misjudging those parameters can be deadly.
Second, never travel alone in the backcountry. If something occurs, then it takes at least 45 minutes for help to arrive, and that’s assuming, rescuers know your location and that it is safe to enter. Generally, your survival window is 20 minutes or less, and you could be totally on your own.
According to Vail Mountain Rescue, your best means of survival is your buddies. Make sure everyone is a highly proficient skier, has appropriate gear, avalanche rescue training and the guts to do it. Avoid trees, cliffs and large rocks that channel into a gully … meadows are safer.
As you prepare to head downhill, go one at a time. Never go above your partner, and get out of the way if you are below. Determine who is first and last on the slope and where you will be stopping. Remain in visual and voice contact. Adjust plans according to terrain conditions. Finally, establish an escape route.
Bring a gear/survival bag. Be sure to include an avalanche beacon and shovel. If possible, bring a flotation backpack and an AvaLung. These can be lifesaving but have drawbacks, since the flotation device has a ripcord that must be reachable, and you must be coherent enough to pull it (you may only have seconds to react), and you must have the AvaLung mouthpiece in your mouth upon landing.
Since most deaths occur during the fall, from the blunt-force trauma of trees and rocks, there is a good chance that if you survive, the ripcord will be unreachable and the mouthpiece nowhere near your face. Once you land, the snow from the avalanche would have hit the bottom with such force that it becomes a solid pack of ice around your face and body, making movement and breathing impossible.
If you make it through the fall, then you will need more to survive while awaiting rescue, particularly if it begins to get dark. Even with preparations, after the event you may be too weak or disoriented to get back and will have to stay in place for the night. Unexpected things can happen, such as slipping on a hidden rock that breaks your ankle while landing on your cellphone, making it inoperable. Now, you can’t walk nor contact anyone.
Surviving the night in the wilderness requires some additional preparation, particularly if injured. Bring a map and compass for orientation (GPS is often unavailable in the wilderness), a flashlight (check batteries beforehand), bear spray (you don’t want to be bait for wildlife), space blanket for warmth, all-weather matches, whistle, two lawn and leaf trash bags as a tarp or rain suit, 3 feet of aluminum foil for heat reflection or water bowl, 10 feet of duct tape, 10 feet of parachute cord, two water purification tablets (1 quart each), which all fits into a one-quart Ziploc bag that can double as a canteen, plus a first-aid kit.
Feed your taste for adventure with a balance of common sense. Your family and friends will be grateful not to miss a ski day to attend a funeral.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Write a column
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