Land, Water and People: Avalanche safety requires knowledge and self-control


The snow pack in the mountains that surround the upper Rio Grande is currently a mixed bag. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are running above average while the San Juan Mountains are mostly running below average. Anyone who has lived in this area knows, though, that could change quickly with one big storm cycle. With that in mind, now is the time to prepare mentally and materially for avalanche season.

Avalanches take lives in Colorado every year and, like many winter backcountry enthusiasts, I have lost more friends and acquaintances in avalanches than I can count on one hand. Add to that the number of people I know who have been caught and survived avalanches and I need to take my shoes off. The point here is not to scare you so that you stay inside, but rather to motivate you to learn about and practice avalanche safety.

Avalanches generally occur during or right after a winter storm on slopes ranging in steepness from 30-45 degrees. Thirty-six to thirty-seven degree slopes tend to be particularly dangerous. Windy days may also increase avalanche risk as snow is transported from the windward to the lee sides of slopes. 

It is safest to travel on the windward side of ridges or on low-angled slopes well away from avalanche runout zones. Avalanche runout zones are those areas below avalanche paths where the snow piles up. Traveling through thick trees is often safe, but even these areas can slide when conditions are severe. If a questionable area must be crossed (really think about that “must be crossed” part), then one person should cross at a time while others watch.

All members in a group traveling in the backcountry should at the very least be equipped with, and be proficient at using, avalanche beacons, probe poles and shovels. These pieces of equipment are not a substitute for good judgment, but if things go wrong, they will help those not caught in a slide to quickly locate and dig out buried group members.

Many avalanche victims had avalanche training and were well experienced, but made bad decisions. These tragic choices were made for a variety of reasons, such as not gathering enough information, being tired, timid, complacent, overly excited or competitive, not thinking for oneself, or having a tendency to take risks. 

Often, avalanche accidents occur in places very familiar to the victims. The victims became complacent because they had recreated in the area many times and had never seen an avalanche in the spot before. The victims did not make an unbiased assessment of the avalanche conditions in their favorite playground.

In some situations, people become competitive either within their group or with other groups. For example, if two groups are skiing in the same area, the tendency is to try to ski the good stuff before the other group does. This desire to put in the first tracks may lead to disregarding dangerous conditions. 

It’s not unusual when skiing in a group that one person becomes the de facto leader. The tendency of others in the group is to defer to the leader’s judgment as they trust the leader has more knowledge than them. This may also lead other members of the group to put their own critical thinking and intuition on auto pilot. It’s important for everyone in the group to stay engaged and speak up if they don’t feel safe.

People with a high tolerance for risk are also susceptible to becoming avalanche victims.  This adrenaline-fueled behavior can be a big problem if the individual is also leading a group of people who don’t understand the risks. 

One of the many reasons for living in Colorado is to recreate outdoors in the winter. A little knowledge about avalanches, being self-aware about your decision making and carrying avalanche safety gear will allow you to enjoy many fun years recreating in the snow.

For more information, visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website at http://avalanche.state.co.us.

Stay safe out there.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.

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