Morris: Let’s set a new record in the backcountry
Sammy, my backyard squirrel, is busy again gathering pine cones like last fall. I’m not sure if it means we’re in for an early and heavy winter or not. But it’s really like he’s trying to set a new record for how many he gathers. Setting records can be both good and bad.
Last winter, unfortunately, the United States set a record for the most avalanche fatalities it had in 11 years. Nationally, 37 folks died in avalanches during the 2020-21 winter. Sadly, there were two avalanche fatalities locally (in Marvin’s West and Lime Creek) and three well-known Eagle residents died in an avalanche near Red Mountain Pass outside of Silverton. The breakdown of the national fatalities was 17 skiers, five snowboarders, nine snowmobilers, five snowshoers/climbers/hikers and one heliskier.
There are a couple of reasons for why we had so many avalanche fatalities. The first reason was that we had a widespread “weak” snowpack that formed in the early part of the winter. This weak snowpack was due to the early season infrequent snowfalls that allowed large depth-hoar crystals to form at the bottom of the snowpack. This layer allowed for larger avalanches that could be triggered from greater distances.
The second reason was the COVID-19 pandemic. More people headed into the backcountry to avoid having to deal with the COVID restrictions and procedures at ski areas. Nationwide, outdoor stores reported record sales of backcountry-related ski and snowboarding equipment.
I also heard that there were record sales of snowmobiles, and you were lucky if you could find one to buy. There were also reports that numerous backcountry trailheads had overcrowded parking — even on weekdays. I’m sure that among the larger crowds were more outdoor enthusiasts who didn’t have much avalanche education.
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Numerous avalanche experts believe that getting formal avalanche education is the key to personal safety in the backcountry. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center runs an avalanche awareness program called: “Know Before You Go.” At the core of the program is the key point of “Get the knowledge (i.e., take a course), Get the gear (proper avalanche rescue equipment) and Get the local avalanche forecast.” These three points are easy to follow.
The CAIC is the greatest resource that Colorado backcountry users have. The CAIC issues free daily forecasts for mountain weather and avalanche danger. Their forecasts can be found at Colorado.gov/avalanche
Avalanche.org is also a great resource for avalanche forecasts and information about snow avalanches. The American Avalanche Association is the sponsor of Avalanche.org. A3 is a nonprofit whose mission is to keep people safe in avalanche country. Through education, professional development, outreach and research, it oversees professional avalanche education in the United States and sets recreational and professional avalanche course guidelines. A3 should be considered a resource for all backcountry users and encourages everyone who recreates in avalanche terrain to pursue life-saving education and training. Check it out at AmericanAvalancheAssociation.org/ or on FaceBook at American Avalanche Association.
Like Sammy, I would like to set a new record this winter. How about all backcountry users dedicate themselves to taking their first avalanche course or a refresher course this winter? The time spent in a course or even reading a few of the recent avalanche education textbooks is time that will pay big dividends.
With more avalanche-educated folks in the backcountry, maybe we’ll set another record for the fewest number of fatalities ever. That’s a record we could all be proud of.
Halsted “Hacksaw” Morris lives in Avon and is the current President of the American Avalanche Association.