Learning the backcountry ropes with Mountain Rescue Aspen
January 16, 2017
Everybody knows you need to do your exercises to safely navigate the backcountry — and that's exactly what scores of people did Saturday on the back of Aspen Mountain.
About 100 people enrolled in Mountain Rescue Aspen's 32nd annual avalanche workshop, which featured a classroom session Friday night and field exercises on Richmond Hill all day Saturday.
The horde was divided into six groups that visited different stations set up in the rolling, snow-clogged hills of the ridge south of the Silver Queen Gondola's upper terminal.
The students studied terrain and snow conditions with Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Blase Reardon. They honed their skills on fine searches with avalanche beacons under the guidance of Mountain Rescue Aspen instructors. They scrambled to find and dig out "victims" in simulated disaster scenarios.
Veterans and newbies
The workshop attracted veteran backcountry travelers who wanted to refresh their skills under the watchful eyes of experts. It also drew newbies who wanted to learn about avalanches before they start venturing out.
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There were skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobilers.
Aspen was well-represented among the crowd, but people came from as far away as Ridgway, a little more than 200 miles away near Telluride..
John Hulburd, a tall, powerful-looking alpine touring skier who appeared at home in the mountains, said he has been backcountry skiing since 1975. He's doing more hut skiing as he becomes too "lazy" to do winter camping, he said, but he still gets out a fair amount.
He said it was reassuring to hear Reardon emphasize keeping your assessments of the backcountry straightforward, without overthinking things. Safe route selection is always the key for backcountry travel, Hulburd said.
He was blazingly fast to find a "victim" by zeroing in with his beacon in one of the slide scenarios with pretend buried skiers. In the brief critique that followed, Hulburd acknowledged that while he was quick to find the victim, he did a poor job of communicating with his fellow searchers — which could be key when looking for multiple victims.
While Hulburd was a veteran brushing up his skills, Britny Ferguson, 24, of Aspen and Detroit, was taking the avalanche workshop to get more comfortable heading into the backcountry on her snowboard. She said she triggered a small slide in Utah last winter and decided she needed learn about avalanches if she was going to continue going out.
She eagerly embraced the exercises and said she enjoyed the Friday evening classroom session led by Reardon — although it packed a lot of information into a short time.
Charlotte Brooks and Scott Grosscup, friends from Glenwood Springs, were in-betweeners — they have backcountry experience but hadn't taken a prior avalanche workshop. They said their spouses have taken the training, so they wanted to follow suit before a hut trip later this winter in the San Juan Mountains.
"I've relied on other people to tell me what to do and how to be safe," Brooks said. She aimed to change that.
Reardon and the Mountain Rescue Aspen trainers volunteer their time so the workshop fee is only $30.
Reardon is entering his fourth year as the forecaster for the Aspen zone for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. He is in high demand as a local speaker.
"We are having a very interesting, spectacular winter here," Reardon told the audience Friday evening, referring to the copious amount of snow and wind the Colorado mountains have received this month. That's produced avalanche conditions that have been consistently "high" and "considerable."
As of Friday, 11 people have been caught in slides in Colorado, with two of them getting buried, Reardon said. Fortunately, there have been no fatalities, though a man suffered a broken leg while backcountry skiing north of the Fryingpan Valley.
As recently as 10 years ago, conditions such as these would have resulted in deaths, Reardon said, but many people have gotten serious about learning about avalanche risk as backcountry travel has soared.
"People have realized how to stay out of avalanche terrain," Reardon said.
Pitkin County has been the deadliest in Colorado and the nation for avalanche deaths. There have been 17 since the 1998-99 winter.
"No other county even comes close," Reardon said.
The avalanche information center and Mountain Rescue Aspen aim to end that trend. Reardon covered a lot of information, which can broadly be summed up with his advice to students to learn the ALPTRUTH acronym, which provides seven factors to assess if it is safe to travel in the backcountry.
• A is for avalanches. Check to see if there has been a slide in the past 48 hours.
• L is for loading. Determine if there has been significant snowfall in the past 48 hours.
• P is for avalanche paths. Determine if the area being targeted is an avalanche path.
• T is for terrain traps. Look for features that exacerbate the consequences if you get caught in an avalanche. They include cliffs, gullies and trees at the bottom of an avalanche path.
• R is for the avalanche hazard rating. Check what the avalanche experts had to say for the day.
• U is for unstable snow. Can you hear a "whumping" sound? That signifies unstable snowpack.
• The T and H are for thawing. Assess if there has been significant warming in a short time.
If three or more of the characteristics are present, it should raise a red flag, Reardon said.
Out in the field early Saturday morning, Reardon worked with a student group to apply the lessons learned in the classroom the night before. They assessed which of the factors existed on a beautiful slope dropping off the westerly side of Richmond Hill. The booms of explosive charges used by the Aspen Highlands ski patrol resounded off in the distance, punctuating the importance of the lessons.