Top 10 avalanche misconceptions |

Top 10 avalanche misconceptions

SUMMIT COUNTY – They’re the kind of statements that make ski patrollers and mountain rescuers cringe.

Backcountry novices – especially those lucky enough to have been pulled from avalanche slide paths alive – have been known to spout them. For others, they’ve been famous last words.

With feet of snow piling up over the past three weeks, a break of pack-melting sunshine and recent winds topping out at 80 mph in some locations, conditions are ripe for avalanches. Saturday afternoon, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) listed the Summit County area in considerable danger for slides, with pockets of high danger on leeward slopes.

Anyone considering venturing off-piste might want to digest the following top 10 wive’s tales, fallacies and misconceptions about avalanches, culled from Summit County’s ski patrols, backcountry diehards and snow science experts:

10. I’ll just try and get a little closer to the edge and get a better look.

9. I’ve hiked all day, I’ve worked this hard, it doesn’t look good, but I’m going to ski it anyway. Breckenridge Ski Patrol member Jeff Ferragi calls it “Summit Fever.” It can be a terminal illness, Ferragi said.

8. If it slides, I’ll just swim and try to make an air pocket. If you look at the history of avalanche accidents, guides survive more often than other individuals – likely due to their experience and instinct. But Copper Mountain patrol manager Sam Parker says swimming is wishful thinking and, usually, once it occurs to someone to do this, they’re buried. “You’d best be fighting for all you’re worth,” Parker said.

7. By wearing a beacon, you can’t get caught in a slide. “All a beacon does is help someone find your body,” Parker said. He gave this quick math example to support his point: Fine Colorado champagne powder is 7 percent water, which translates into 70 kilograms per cubic meter of snow. Avalanche debris – conservatively – is 25 percent water, or 300 kilograms per cubic meter. “Take two NFL linemen, have them stand on your chest and try to breathe,” Parker said. “That’s what you’re up against.”

6. There’s tracks across it, so it won’t slide again. Arapahoe Basin spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer said tracks on the Professor, the slide-prone area across U.S. Highway 6 from the ski area, often misleadingly beckon hikers using this logic.

5. I’m an expert skier; my skills far outweigh the danger, and I’ll just ski out of a slide. “It can happen, but it’s luck,” said Scott Toepfer, a CAIC analyst.

4. Avalanches only happen when you head downhill. Bzzzt. The seven skiers killed earlier this year in British Columbia were all skinning uphill.

3. It’s a treed slope, so it won’t slide. Bzzzzt, strike two. The snowmobiler killed in an avalanche earlier this week on Hancock Pass near Monarch was riding on a gladed area.

2. It’s never slid before, so it’s safe. Toepfer reminds mortals that our lifespans are just a blink in glacial and meteorological cycles.

1. Avalanches are like lightning – if it already slid once there, it won’t slide again.

The experts say avalanche danger will continue on into the spring, so anyone looking for fresh turns off-piste should be knowledgeable about snow science or traveling with someone who is. In order to accept the risk, you have to be able to perceive it, Parker said – otherwise it’s just stupid.

“The critical message is don’t put yourself in that position to begin with,” Parker said. “It might sound like a cop-out, but there’s a ton of terrain out there that will meet the needs of people’s backcountry desires, without putting them in an avalanche path.”

More information on avalanches, including avalanche awareness courses, log on to the CAIC’s Web site at

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or

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