Summit search and rescue group urges backcountry recreationists to use caution this winter
FRISCO — Snowfall has been relatively slow to start back up after a prolific October, but temperatures are beginning to cool and snow is starting to pile up in the Colorado Rockies.
More snow means more adventurers taking to the wilds of Summit County’s backcountry to meet the lure of undisturbed powder and sink into the quiet of Colorado’s landscapes. But on occasion, that quiet can turn to chaos, and anyone heading off the beaten path this winter should be prepared for the worst.
“A lot of people will be coming to the county soon and will be interested in going into the backcountry,” said Charles Pitman, a public information officer and mission coordinator with Summit County Rescue Group. “Some people are more prepared than others, and that makes it a challenging season for us not knowing what’s happened when our pagers go off.”
Pitman noted that the search and rescue team — an all volunteer, nonprofit group that operates under the purview of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office — gets about 150 calls for assistance a year. And while a majority of those calls typically come during the summer months, when more casual recreationists don’t have to trek through the snow, winter calls can be considerably more complicated.
Skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and snowshoers often venture off set trail systems, meaning it can be difficult for search and rescue teams to identify exactly where they are. And the winter months bring new challenges for individuals in the backcountry aside from getting lost, including avalanches, extreme weather shifts and hypothermia. Still, the risks haven’t stopped the number of backcountry enthusiast from growing year after year.
“Our numbers have definitely been going up,” Pitman said. “I think that we have at least double the amount of calls we did just a few years ago. Part of that is due to better equipment. Your skis are better, and you can get farther; snowmobiles have a lot more power and can get you up hills they couldn’t before.
“But there are also a lot more people recreating. And part of the culture these days is wanting to press your boundaries. That’s good. We’re a group of search and rescue people, and we love the outdoors. But there’s a way to do it safely and to be prepared, as opposed to just grabbing a piece of equipment and charging into the backcountry with no skills whatsoever.”
Pitman recommended that anyone heading out should start off with a basic backcountry skills course or avalanche safety course, getting hands on training in how to use equipment properly, how to recognize avalanche terrain and more.
Having proper equipment is also vital for backcountry safety. Pitman said that nobody should head out without an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel just in case anyone in their party gets caught in a slide. It’s also important to know how to properly use the equipment. Next month, the rescue group will be reopening its avalanche beacon training area at Frisco Adventure Park, a free space for community members to refresh their skills.
“One of the frustrating things for search and rescue members are the number of people who still go out in the winter without the beacon, probe and shovel,” Pitman said. “If you get caught in an avalanche, and you’re waiting on us to find you, your odds of surviving are diminishing by the minute. The people who are most likely going to save you are your backcountry companions. We like to joke that what you want to do is buy the best, most expensive beacon you can find and give it to your friend. Because he’s the one who will find you.”
Adding to concerns this year, the area could be looking at another severe avalanche season due to early snow patterns. Pitman noted that with snow on grassy surfaces, it’s very easy for it to slide this time of year and that a persistent weak layer at the bottom of incoming snowpack could mean bigger slides deeper into the season.
Recreationists also should gear up for dramatic changes in weather. Even if the day begins warm, things can turn quickly, and people should always carry basic winter clothes like a heavy coat, gloves, hat, space blanket and anything else that could keep you warm in the event you’re stranded outside for several hours or overnight. Pitman also recommended carrying a compass, some way to start a fire and said people should keep their cellphones off while in the backcountry to conserve battery until it’s needed. Those who are able also should consider picking up a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon, which can transmit SOS messages and provide search and rescue teams with precise GPS locations.
• Navigation: map of the area, compass, GPS, extra batteries or charger
• Signaling: whistle, mirror, cellphone, surveyor tape
• Light source: headlamp, flashlight, extra batteries
• Nourishment: water, high-energy food for 24-48 hours
• Shelter: waterproof tarp, bivvy sack, parachute cord
• Fire building: waterproof matches or lighter, heat tabs, knife
• Personal aid: first-aid kit with medications, sunscreen, dark glasses, bug repellent
• Weather protection: extra socks, warm gloves, rain gear, hat, bug net
• Winter extras: avalanche beacon, probe, shovel with metal blade
• Rules to follow: never hike alone, always leave a schedule and trip plan with someone at home, stay on the trail, wait for search and rescue if you become lost
Pitman noted that even though the rescue team is skilled at extricating individuals from tricky backcountry situations, it can be time consuming, and people might have to fend for themselves for hours until they’re found.
“People have to remember that we’re not like the police or EMS, where we have a group stationed at a trailhead,” Pitman said. “We’re spread all over the county. And if it took you two hours to get where you are, it will take us at least that long. … You could be stuck out there for an extended period of time.”
Aside from making sure you’re properly educated and equipped, there are also some helpful resources that recreationists should check before heading into the backcountry, including the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which provides forecasts and avalanche conditions in different areas of the state. (Summit County’s avalanche risk is currently moderate.)
Finally, recreationists should remember never to head into the backcountry alone, always follow set rules (no ducking under ski area ropes) always know their limits.
“A lot of being safe out there is just knowing when to say ‘no,’” Pitman said. “If your goal is to get somewhere, but you’re not feeling right, you’re cold, you’re out of energy or the weather is starting to turn, know when to quit. There will be other days when the sun is out.”
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