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Avalanche education efforts target broader audience in high danger season

A sign with avalanche safety information is pictured at North Tenmile Trailhead on Monday, March 8. The sign is part of an effort by Friends of the CAIC to improve backcountry avalanche awareness.
Photo by Taylor Sienkiewicz / tsienkiewicz@summitdaily.com

The need for avalanche education has been paramount this season with heightened avalanche danger and an increase in backcountry users.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center and its nonprofit counterpart, Friends of the CAIC, have worked to expand education efforts despite COVID-19 restrictions, and local ski areas have thrown in their support by hosting events and sponsoring signage.

Avalanche center Executive Director Ethan Greene said there has been heightened avalanche danger this season due to weak layers buried in the snowpack. While the avalanches this year typically haven’t been landscape-altering events, he said they are easier to trigger, break wider and run farther due to the underlying snowpack condition, posing a significant danger to backcountry users.



“As the season progressed, (avalanche fractures) started to break much wider than people are used to seeing,” Greene said.

While the avalanche center posts backcountry forecasts daily, Greene said a bit of education can help people apply the forecast in the field. He noted that the forecast center’s YouTube channel provides information about how to use the forecast.



Aaron Carlson — executive director of Friends of the CAIC, the fundraising arm of the avalanche center — mapped out the education efforts the organization led this season, including the Know Before You Go avalanche awareness program, which had to be moved to a virtual format this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. The free program is provided by request to groups, ski areas, schools and others who are interested.

“Know Before You Go is an avalanche awareness program, so it’s very high level, but it does give you an introduction to avalanches and steps to avoid them,” Carlson said.

Because of the virtual format, Carlson said there have been fewer requests for the Know Before You Go program, but the organization has seen success with online modules that have been posted to the avalanche center’s website.

In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and municipalities across the state, Carlson said the avalanche center has put up about 200 4-by-4-foot signs at trailheads. The signs explain at a high level what avalanche danger is, list factors that increase avalanche danger and provide a QR code and URL for people to look at the updated forecast.

Other virtual events, such as snowpack updates with avalanche center forecasters, also are being hosted by Friends of the CAIC.

“We’re doing our best to transition to virtual,” Carlson said. “It’s obviously a little bit of a challenge, but it does provide some opportunity in that we get to have speakers from all over the world present to people in Colorado.”

Carlson noted that the organization has embraced the Zoom platform, with Q&A and “raise hand” functions that allow for interaction. In response to the high avalanche danger this year, Carlson said the organization has put out public service announcements via social media and is currently working on putting out more communication for spring break.

“We are doing a lot of work around getting messaging in front of people,” Carlson said. “I think our core group of people seize the messaging. We’re trying to reach the folks that don’t necessarily utilize the avalanche center but still recreate in the backcountry.”

To reach a broader audience, Carlson said the avalanche center is using targeted social media campaigns, magazine and newspaper advertisements, and soon will be airing TV advertisements.

Ski areas across Summit County also are focusing on education to improve safety.

At Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, a beacon practice area is set up at the base of the Lenawee Lift, where backcountry users can practice their equipment skills. Spokesperson Katherine Fuller wrote in an email that the ski area hosted Colorado Mountain College’s Avalanche Science Program this year, where students were able to gain insight into the ski area’s weather, snow safety and avalanche-mitigation programs.

“A-Basin is also supporting the (avalanche center’s) efforts to put signage and beacon-check stations at popular backcountry areas by sponsoring the sign and beacon checker at the top of Loveland Pass,” Fuller wrote.

At Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort, officials hosted information sessions about uphill access after seeing an increase in interest this season. In addition, resort spokesperson Sara Lococo wrote in an email that the resorts regularly send out safety alerts to employees.

“The safety topics are selected to be relevant and timely based on current trends, such as weather and environment, and that has included messages about backcountry avalanche danger and warnings this season,” Lococo wrote.

Friends of the CAIC also is a recipient of Vail Resorts’ EpicPromise grants program.

For more

Avalanche education resources: Avalanche.state.co.us/education/resources.


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