Basic training

Staying safe in the backcountry starts in the classroom

Photo by Mitch Duggan

Even for an expert, making the right decision can be tough. After three weeks camped on the Carroll Glacier in Alaska, waiting to ski a certain line after it went into the shade, longtime backcountry skier and guide Donny Roth finally set out for the summit. It was the second to last day before their flight out. He and his team hiked to within 200 feet of the summit and assessed the situation. It was, he says, certain death.

“There was no escape route, there was no way of doing it carefully,” he says. With the money spent and sponsors waiting for content, cameras rolling for skiing films and photographers waiting to grab potential cover shots of that perfect line and the full moon rising behind it, he pulled the plug.

“It was heartbreaking,” he says.

Staying safe in the backcountry can be tough even for the experts, requiring some careful decision making that draws on knowledge and experience. So how much harder for the mere mortals? But as more retailers market the idea of individual freedom of the backcountry and ski areas get more crowded, more people are turning to backcountry terrain to do their skiing.

The 2011-2012 season was a particularly harsh year for backcountry avalanche fatalities. Thirty-four people lost their lives in avalanches in the United States, which is two short of the annual record. Many of them were experienced and knowledgeable skiers. No amount of training can guarantee survival, but a little knowledge can go a long way. The steps to building that knowledge — and gaining the associated gear and experience — can begin with an investment as small as a couple hours of time and zero dollars.

Grassroots organizations like Friends of Berthoud Pass have cropped up around the country to offer free clinics on avalanche awareness. In addition to safety and access, making avalanche education accessible to more people has been one of the mission statements guiding the Friends of Berthoud Pass since its founding in 2004.

Though the Berthoud Pass ski area closed in the late 1990s and the lodge was bulldozed and lifts removed, that didn’t seem to deter people from skiing at one of the early entries in the Colorado ski scene. In fact, the first year after it closed reportedly saw more skiers than the previous year. But even with maintained slopes and avalanche mitigation, the resort had seen avalanches in bounds. The risks increased without them, while skiers carved turns often operating under the impression that, as a former ski resort, these lines were safer.

Friends of Berthoud Pass began as a grassroots movement to advocate for the Forest Service to keep the terrain open to backcountry skiing, interfacing with the federal agency to represent the interests of backcountry skiers. But they’ve also developed an avalanche education program designed to keep more people safe in the backcountry. In the eight years since they started teaching avalanche awareness classes, there has only been one avalanche fatality in the Berthoud Pass area.

Shan Sethna, executive director of Friends of Berthoud pass, was among the former ski instructors and veteran backcountry skiers who recognized a need for continued education in avalanche safety.

“We took it upon ourselves to start offering free introductory classes, free awareness classes to the public in 2004, primarily targeting college campuses. That’s our No. 1 risk demographic,” Sethna says. Roughly 1,200 people attend those classes, including two days on the snow.

The foundation those classes lay starts with terrain analysis and understanding a few basic rules about how snow works.

“One of the primary goals of a class is to help people
recognize what is avalanche terrain,” says Roth, who has trained some of
the Friends of Berthoud Pass instructors. “For one, it’s the easiest to
grasp, and two, for your entire backcountry skiing career, if you call
it that, the entire time you’re a backcountry skier, that’s what you do,
choose terrain to ride.”

About
90 percent of avalanches occur in terrain between 30 degrees and 45
degrees — and you can download an app to your smart phone that will help
measure that angle. But basic guidelines apply.

“If it’s fun skiing, it’s avalanche terrain,” Roth says.

Black
runs at ski areas — the kind of terrain an expert skier looking to
explore the backcountry might be seeking — are often pitched about 37
degrees, the same slope that the most avalanches come from.

“Primarily,
we’re teaching avoidance,” Sethna says. “There’s some very simple ways
to avoid getting caught in an avalanche. The first is, don’t go where
they happen. So we teach people to recognize where and when avalanches
might happen. What are the ingredients that create an avalanche, how can
I identify them and avoid them and manage my behavior if I can’t completely avoid them.”

Classes
will also cover equipment and resources like Colorado Avalanche
Information Center, which provides avalanche forecasts for the public.

Alpine
World Ascents hosts avalanche awareness classes at Neptune
Mountaineering and REI throughout the winter, and the Colorado Mountain
School and Colorado Mountain Club also host introductory workshops.

“It’s
a good way to connect with people and hopefully it provides a road map
for the next couple steps,” Roth says. That can include connecting with
other people who share an interest in the backcountry and meeting
potential mentors.

After
all, Sethna stresses, the more people are educated, whether they’re
skiing at Berthoud or anywhere else around the state, the safer everyone
else will be.

“I
think it’s just really important to make conservative decisions in the
backcountry,” Roth says. “Keep going out, but play well within your
limits.”

To see this
year’s class schedule please visit berthoudpass.org or the event
websites for Neptune Mountaineering and the local REI store.

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