Van Beek: Snow temptations
We have previously covered the temptation to challenge Mother Nature and how its beauty can be so enticing that we throw caution to the wind and embark on some rather perilous adventures. We simply can’t help ourselves.
I often wonder how people decide to explore such risk-prone activities. Then I am reminded that when I leave my home, there is always a chance that I won’t live through the day, yet it is my passion. So, while the missions are vastly different, the danger that comes from facing extreme circumstances, and emerging victorious, is quite similar.
My field requires extensive training and years of front-line experience. Some people approach extreme sports with equal preparation, but many others seek merely an adrenaline rush, with substantially less preparation. It is for them that I write this article on tackling the backcountry.
Let’s remember that as we approach spring, weather conditions change rapidly, making preparation challenging. We are also faced with terrain that may shift from snow to slush to ice, within hours, potentially causing substantial variances between the beginning and end of a trip.
Whether skiing, snowboarding, hiking, or snowmobiling, we are equally vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. The element of surprise can leave little room for negotiation.
As we begin our spring adventure, let’s remember that for many of us, our bodies are not what they were in our 20s, so physical preparation is essential. While our imagination may envision scaling a Fourteener, our body may have different plans, like a six-pack at the lake. Hit the gym before hitting the backcountry. The difference between surviving a dangerous fall or other incident and perishing from it can come down to our own physical ability to climb out of a treacherous situation.
Before heading out, check the weather forecast, avalanche reports, and even a call to the forest ranger for updates. This will include evolving trail conditions, backcountry avalanche levels, even wildlife activity, as bears may emerge early from hibernation, and mountain lions may be on the prowl. Bear spray can be a lifesaver.
Avalanche levels are rated 1-5 (low, moderate, considerable, high, extreme). According to Rob Foster, the president of Vail Mountain Rescue, if uncertain about continuing, think of it this way … if someone told you that you had a chance of getting punched in the face by going somewhere, would you be willing to go when the chances were “considerable” or even “moderate?” Currently, most of Colorado is rated at “considerable.”
Be sure to begin your expedition early in the day because it may take longer than anticipated to complete, plus you don’t want to be stuck on the mountain in the dark. With that in mind, remember to bring supplies that can carry you through the night, if stranded.
When it comes to backcountry, avoidance is the only guarantee of safety. An avalanche can be triggered by activities located as far as a quarter mile away. To reduce the likelihood of being caught in an avalanche, stay away from angles that are greater than 30-degrees — it will look similar to a Blue run.
When minutes make the difference between survival and death, your best chance of living through a disaster comes from your backcountry partners, so never go alone. Remember, it will take search and rescue as long to reach you as it took for you to get there. Make sure everyone has taken avalanche training beforehand, as backcountry exploration requires a unique skill set.
Check that your equipment is designed for backcountry expeditions. Communication between party members is critical — bring a satellite phone and walkie-talkies, as cell reception is usually limited. Carry an avalanche transceiver (rescue beacon). It emits a unique signal that rescuers’ equipment can interpret as visual or audible displays. Avalanche shovels and probes are critical in testing snow conditions and locating and digging out those submerged. Avalanche airbags may help you rise to the top of avalanche debris, making rescue easier.
If you encounter an avalanche while driving, here are a few tips. Keep an emergency kit in the car (first-aid items, jumper cables, flares/reflective triangles, ice scraper, phone charger, space blanket, map, flashlight (it’s dark under snow), food, water, two-way radio, extra batteries, sand for traction, avalanche transponder, jackets, ski pants, gloves, and hat.
Avalanche deaths are caused by physical trauma, suffocation, and hypothermia. All can occur in a submerged vehicle. Stay calm to conserve oxygen.
If hit by an avalanche, check passenger safety and determine location of car (above or below snow debris, still on the road or in a ditch, any distinguishing landmarks, etc.) Call 911, then your emergency contact. Make it quick, to conserve battery life and oxygen. Activate OnStar, if available.
Turn off the car to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning (submerged tailpipe); don’t keep it on for heat. With the car off, turn on your headlights and flashers for rescuer visibility. Plug in your phone charger. Do not exit the car! Opening the door or window may fill the car with the pressure of the snowpack. If you attempt to exit, you may sink into an air pocket and be unable to escape.
Spring in the Rockies is a wonderful time of year. Enjoy the beauty but be careful as the changes can cause unpredictable danger. Be safe, as we’d like to have you around a bit longer.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at email@example.com.