Staying safe in the Colo. snow
summit daily news
It was a test: Navigate down slope on Chicago Ridge, above Ski Cooper, in considerable avalanche danger using your newly acquired skills.
I was nervous.
We’d just dug a snow pit that indicated what Colorado snow usually shows – deep instability in the new snow layer, moderate instability in the older layers and an incredibly sketchy surface layer.
“In Colorado, (the snowpack) starts weak and wants to stay weak,” Chris Sutton said. “The snow is so tender, it will want to fail.”
I was tagging along with a backcountry crew of 14 others who were looking to apply lessons from the ski area’s three-day avalanche course on their weekend ventures.
And Ski Cooper’s snow safety supervisor, Sutton, wasn’t going to let us make a poor decision. He was just going to let us feel like we were getting precariously close.
“Fifteen to say go and one to say no,” he kept saying. He meant, if one of us wasn’t comfortable with the decision, we’d all stop and reassess rather than get wrapped up in group mentality.
We found our way down the slope by setting safety zones – spots that, if an avalanche started, would be out of its way. We dropped in one by one, noting every snowpack clue as it occurred.
Ski Cooper’s course is meant to teach safe touring in the backcountry – which is possible even in adverse conditions, generally by staying on low-angle slopes.
“Anything in this state above 30 degrees in midwinter is potentially dangerous,” Sutton said.
But the key is observation – gathering information from various sources and putting it together to make a decision.
The first source is the forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center – pore over that information over breakfast to get a broad look at the area’s avalanche danger.
But because the forecast can be so broad, it’s up to the individual to gather more information. When in the field, take in information about the wind, the behavior of the snowpack as you trek through it or jump on it, what you’re feeling under your skis and by jabbing your pole through the layers, assessing the path of a potential slide through terrain changes, vegetative damage and more.
“You’ve got to look at the slope all the time,” Sutton said.
And then there’s the snow pit, the chance to confirm what you’ve observed. Choose a safe place to dig that’s representative of the desired ski slope to assess everything from the basic layer composition to testing the snow’s stability.
Sutton emphasizes that making a decision can be complex. For instance, just because the mid-layer is stronger than the top layer doesn’t mean it will hold if the top layer goes sliding. There’s such a thing as a step-down avalanche, where movement in the top layer triggers movement in the lower layers.
When he brings information together to formulate a decision, Sutton emphasizes the avalanche triangle – the ingredients for setting off a slide.
Is the weather conducive?
Is there rapid loading of the slope with either snow or wind?
Is the terrain steep enough?
In the center of that triangle is the backcountry tourer, he said, who is the only controlled element.
“The only thing you have control over in the backcountry – you can’t control the weather, you can’t control the terrain, you can’t dictate the snowpack – but the one thing you have control over in the backcountry is you,” Sutton said.
Only the backcountry tourer can choose to go or stay, or which slope to run.
“You can have dangerous conditions but choose a lower degree aspect,” Sutton said after he’d put together all his information. “If (this slope) was steeper than this, I wouldn’t ski it.”
“If you have a cell phone and you have a signal, it’s not a bad idea to call 911 and say these words: ‘There’s been an avalanche and I have X amount of confirmed burials,'” Sutton said. “That’s going to start a lot of stuff in motion, all of which is good.”
It’s best to get that call off from the ridge, he added, because backcountry valleys drop away from cell signal quickly.
Summit County has a reverse GPS system to pinpoint a person’s location through the call, but that’s not true for all county emergency response systems.
“That’s where good trip planning comes in,” said avalanche instructor, Chicago Ridge guide and patroller John Reller. “If you know where you are and can tell the dispatcher where you are when you call in, you don’t have to rely on if they have that triangulation or not.”
The phone call triggers search and rescue and the rapid avalanche deployment team, where Flight for Life lets off its medical crew and picks up an avalanche technician, avalanche dog and the dog’s handler and heads to the scene.
If the buried person has been found, they get loaded up and whisked away.
“If not, the dog works over debris a lot faster than we do,” Sutton said.
Search and rescue teams don’t usually have a live find, Sutton said, so having the right tools and the right know-how is paramount to traveling in the backcountry.
“Your partner’s best chance of survival is you. It’s not the helicopter, it’s not the avalanche dogs … by the time you call for outside help, we’re probably sending a body home,” Sutton said.
Reller told a story about one call where a man’s wife had run out for help. He arrived on scene and saw a clue in the snow: a glove sticking out of the snow.
“I went to pick the glove up and shook hands with a dead guy,” Reller said, adding that the man wasn’t buried deep and there wasn’t much trauma; he likely could have survived.
The take-home point, Sutton said, is to master the burial drills. Understand your beacon, where to look for clues, what they might be, how to probe and effective digging techniques such that you can find a buried beacon in less than two minutes.
Sutton is a firm believer that, to understand digital beacon technology, learning the basic functions of an analog transceiver is a good starting point. He spreads out a radio signal poster with a beacon in its center and talks the class through the receiving beacon’s readings. Then, he explains how a digital beacon calculates distance and direction from those signals.
“Train with your unit,” Sutton said. “The best beacon out there is the one you own and the one you can find your partner with.”
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