It appears that many years we have written about avalanche safety and I’m eager to continue this tradition because I love to recreate outdoors and strive for all winter recreation enthusiasts to stay safe.
Now is the time to mentally prepare for avalanche season.
Let’s start with our current conditions.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, all three forecast regions surrounding the SLV are moderate, which means the snowpack can be unstable and avalanches can occur, but conditions are not as delicate as they might be just after a big snowfall.
This can be dangerous though.
Recreationists can become almost complacent under these conditions and a person’s brain might wrongly decide that the snowpack is completely safe, encouraging the user to take greater risks in terrain they might not have dreamed of entering just after a storm.
I call this a brain deficiency. The snowpack in that particular area may indeed be safe, but a user should take precautions to ensure they make an educated determination of snowpack’s stability.
I highly encourage backcountry users of all types to take an avalanche course and periodic refreshers to equip themselves with as much information as possible to make informed decisions about their winter recreation activities.
Some of the basic information can get you started.
Avalanches generally occur during or just after a winter storm on slopes ranging in steepness from 30 to 45 degrees. Thirty-six to 37-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 run-out zones.
Traveling through thick trees is often safe, but even these areas can slide under certain conditions.
If a questionable area must be crossed (really consider that “must be crossed” part), then cross only one person at a time while others watch.
All members in a group traveling in the back-country should, at the very least, be equipped with and 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 the slide to quickly locate and dig out buried group members.
Avalanches claim lives in Colorado every year. Many winter recreationalists have had some form of experience related to avalanches.
From attending an avalanche safety course to witnessing or triggering slides, these users can probably tell stories that will (or at least should) put a little fear, or a better term is healthy respect, into you.
Use this healthy respect to motivate yourself to learn about and practice avalanche safety.
Often, when skiing in a group, 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 the other members to ignore their own critical thinking and intuition.
Another brain deficiency?
It is important for everyone in the group to stay engaged, speak up and act accordingly to encourage group safety.
In some situations, people become competitive 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 make first tracks may lead to disregarding signs of dangerous conditions.
Yet another brain deficiency?
We all know that a big snowfall can happen at any time here.
And it is likely that, by the time you read this, conditions will have changed.
My family went snowshoeing last weekend up forest road #380.
Since I’m new here, I wasn’t sure of what we’d find there, so I checked both the weather and avalanche forecasts and headed out with the knowledge that I’d probably have to steer clear of some slopes and aspects.
No problem. That’s just what you do in the backcountry.
To safely recreate in avalanche country, attend an avalanche education session and carry avalanche safety gear. I’ve had many fun days training to use this gear with my friends and colleagues.
For more information, visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website at http://avalanche.state.co.us.
Gregg Goodland is the new Public Affairs Officer for the Rio Grande National Forest.