Point taken

Taking an avalanche safety course in the middle of a pandemic

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It’s typically windy in Rocky Mountain National Park. On this January Friday, however, it’s relatively calm and warm. With temperatures eking into the high 40s by the afternoon, there’s hardly any snow on our drive to the Bear Lake parking area around 8 a.m. As we start skinning up to Emerald Lake, what little snow there is on the “southerlies,” or south-facing aspects, shows signs of small wet slides, roller balls of snow moving down the hillside. As the sun warms the surface, water starts percolating down, weakening the strength of the snow. It’s typical of late spring avalanche conditions, where a season’s worth of snow starts to do the same with the potential to release large slides that can bury and kill a person within minutes. 

The north side has much more snow — the angle is steep, but the trees are thick, making an avalanche unlikely. Every few hundred yards, we stop and look around and above us, assessing every pillowy slope, comparing it to the maps on our phones, using a slope angle to measure areas of steepness above 30 degrees — avalanche terrain. 

If it sounds like I’m new to the backcountry, it’s because I am. I’ve been putting off the switch to splitboarding — a backcountry snowboard  that splits into two ski-like planks in order to skin up terrain but connects back together at the top in order to ride down — for a few seasons. Weekends spent at resorts don’t hold the same thrill as they did more than a decade ago when I first started. I search for more and more challenging and untracked terrain, largely dependent on ever-diminishing snow conditions, due at least in part to climate change, as the crowds keep getting bigger and bigger. 

Until this year, one thing always stopped me from forsaking resorts for the backcountry: avalanche risk. Colorado has a notoriously avalanche-prone snowpack, earning a reputation for the most dangerous backcountry state for skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, even snowshoers and hikers. 

The author skins to Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Of the seven avalanche fatalities so far this winter in the U.S., four of them have happened in Colorado, and all in December. As of press time, three more skiers are still missing between Silverton and Ophir after being buried by a slide on Feb. 1. Compare that to a total of six avalanche fatalities across the state in the 2019-20 season (only one in December 2019) and the outlook this year looks grim. In the week of Jan. 25-Feb. 1, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) recorded 261 avalanches around the state, more than 60 of which were human-triggered.

“Taking the broad perspective of the season thus far, we essentially built a pretty terrible snowpack structure in terms of its ability to produce avalanches,” says Brian Lazar, deputy director of CAIC. “It’s about as bad a snowpack as we’ve seen since 2012.” 

Digging a snowpit to test the snowpack is a large part of avalanche safety.

At the same time, all signs are pointing to increased backcountry use this season after years of steady growth. Many resorts have implemented some sort of reservation system as part of their pandemic response, even as more people want to be outside, where social distancing is easier. As more and more people start exploring the backcountry, the number of avalanche incidents could easily increase.  

In preparation, CAIC has expanded its education resources page to help direct folks to more learning opportunities. It’s invested in avalanche signage to post at trailheads and in backcountry huts, mailed brochures through partner organizations hoping to get the word out, and upped its social media game to draw the attention of potential backcountry users. Even the Colorado Tourism Office has redirected its winter budget away from luring out-of-state skiers and toward avalanche and responsible recreation education for locals. 

It’s hard to know exactly how many people are touring the backcountry but, anecdotally, Lazar says he expects more users if backcountry gear sales and enrollment at avalanche safety courses give any indication.

According to reporting from The Economist, sales of backcountry touring gear more than doubled between 2016 and March 2020, from $39 million to $79 million, and that’s before the surge later in 2020 when many retailers reported selling out as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered ski resorts around the world. Between August and December, research from The NPD Group, which tracks retail sales, shows sales of Nordic and alpine touring equipment, splitboards, snowshoes and backcountry accessories including beacons, probes, skins and avalanche shovels grew 76% compared to the same time period in 2019. 

After ordering my bindings online in mid-November, I was told they wouldn’t be available until July 2021. Thankfully, after a quick call to the company, the sales rep found some for me at a store in Vermont — the last pair in the flagship store. In December, it took the local outdoor shop eight full days to trim my skins and wax my splitboard.

Still skeptical of the backcountry, I refused to go out on my new gear (apart from skinning up resorts) until I could take a recreational avalanche safety course. But the first available opening with Colorado Mountain School (CMS) in RMNP wasn’t until the end of January.

“We sold out all the December courses in the beginning of November, which is just unheard of,” says Jason Maurer, the CMS avalanche program director. “What I’ve heard is we’re up like 600% right now.” 

When three people canceled on a mid-January course last minute, Maurer says there were 26 people on the waitlist. CMS has doubled avalanche educators and ski guide staff since last season, even bringing in guest guides and internationally certified guides who can’t travel overseas right now, he adds. 

Pandemic aside, Maurer says CMS has seen “a slow uptick” in avalanche education course enrollment for several years. 

“I definitely have seen it becoming more popular,” he says. “I would say folks wanting to get that education before going out is big, and then wanting to get that education because their backcountry partners that have it already require them to. There’s some like accountability now, I guess, for getting into the backcountry.”

Wearing a beacon can be the difference between life and death in the event of an avalanche, but only if you and your skiing partners know how to use them.

Of the six people in my course, a few people are new to Colorado, another one has been riding in the backcountry for several years but is the last person in his friend group to get certified. The friend I’m taking the course with has more experience than me. Five out of six of us are on splitboards, something other guides and groups comment on as we make our way up to Emerald Lake on Friday. 

The same happens on Sunday in Hidden Valley. It’s another clear and sunny day, starting out frigid before warming up in the afternoon. Taking the day off to trip plan, we’re lucky enough to miss the Saturday storm, which only brought in a couple of inches to isolated parts of RMNP but had high wind gusts — maybe as much as 80 mph, according to our instructor, Mia Tucholke. 

A ski, rock and ice climbing guide with CMS, Tucholke has also been teaching avalanche education since the early 1990s. Starting at age four, she grew up skiing in Europe before moving to Colorado in 1985. Her first job was with a heli-ski operation in Summit County before becoming an instructor at Breckinridge, where she was also a ski patroller for a time. She’s currently working toward her International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) certification, with plans to take the final exam this summer. If she passes, she’ll become one of only 15 IFMGA certified women in the United States. 

“It brings me so much joy to share the mountain environment with folks,” she says. “I constantly learn new things from being out there and from the people I teach. It is extremely rewarding.”

CMS guide and instructor Mia Tucholke points to Dragon Tail Couloir, a popular backcountry descent in the spring when avalanche conditions have improved.

After eight hours of online coursework the week prior (replacing historical classroom teaching due to the pandemic), Tucholke begins our field education at the Bear Lake Trailhead on Friday. We discuss the day’s weather and avalanche forecasts, review our gear and run through a beacon test to ensure everyone’s transceivers are running properly before we start making our way toward Emerald Lake, stopping to observe the topography around us. At one point, we scurry off the trail into the wood to dig snow pits, an internationally universal process for studying the snowpack in avalanche terrain. 

Although the snowpack isn’t that deep, it’s easy to see the weak and unstable layers of snow underneath the cohesive slab of newer snow on top, perfect conditions for Colorado’s notorious avalanche problem — persistent slabs.

“As the name implies, it means that once we develop those weak layers, they stick around for awhile,” Lazar from CAIC says. “And they have a couple of nefarious characteristics. One of which being that they may allow you to trigger avalanches from a distance, or even from below on flat ground. And because our weak layers are particularly bad this year, we were seeing a lot of that type of remote or triggering from a distance early in the season. It’s dropped off quite a bit in the last couple weeks, but it’s still something we have to think about.” 

Tucholke, who also studied hydrologic engineering at Colorado School of Mines, pulls out a magnifying loupe to show us the weak, crystalized, faceted snow that makes up the weakest layer. 

We dig pits again on Sunday in Hidden Valley, this time noticing wind slabs — areas of cohesion due to wind moving and compacting snow in certain areas. But that’s after spending the morning practicing avalanche rescue, searching for buried beacons with our transceivers, using our probes to determine exact locations, and working as a team to shovel them out as quickly as possible. At most, someone can survive for 15 minutes after being buried in an avalanche. That is if they survive the violent trauma that causes the majority of avalanche deaths as they tumble across landscapes full of rocks and trees.

Lazar says avalanche education is crucial to CAIC’s efforts to manage and mitigate avalanche dangers around the state. “It’s one of the three main pillars that we try to emphasize,” he says. 

First, get the forecast. Second, travel with a minimum of beacon, shovel and probe, and with a partner whenever possible. “Then that third leg is get some recreational avalanche education because it teaches you not only how to better use the forecast to develop trip plans appropriate for the conditions, but it teaches you how to use and practice [rescues] so you can become more proficient with that rescue gear in the event something goes wrong.”

Tucholke holds a section of wind slab after digging a snowpit in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Tucholke has seen plenty of avalanches run from afar while out in the backcountry and has traveled through her fair share of recent avalanche debris. In her decades of skiing and guiding, though, she has never been in an avalanche herself. She credits this mostly to her ability to say no — to back off a trip, turn around, listen to “the little dude” on her shoulder telling her it’s not safe.  

And in all her years teaching avalanche safety and rescue, she’s only been in one rescue. It was sometime in the late 1980s, she says. She was skiing with a client in the sidecountry (terrain just outside ski area boundaries) when four people triggered an avalanche nearby. She had her rescue gear with her and immediately started searching, although none of the buried skiers were wearing beacons. She spent the next eight hours on a “probing mission,” essentially scouring the debris field, probing the snow until they found all four bodies. 

“You have your whole life to ski or board, so make sure you can do it your whole life,” Tucholke says at the end of the course.

Every avalanche fatality can be traced back to some sort of human error, she adds, which makes continuing avalanche education, tracking avalanche conditions and meticulously planning multiple trip options prudent.  

“I think it’s good to take a long-term view of all this because it helps you put any kind of decision you make in a larger context,” Lazar says. “I would start by really easing into it. Take some classes, spend some time digging into the snow and looking at snowpack structure and only very gradually ease into steeper terrain as you get a sense for how different the snowpack can be.”

Point taken.

In some ways, I’m more suspect of traveling in the backcountry now, after taking the avalanche safety course, than I was before I started. It’s not because I didn’t learn anything; it’s because I learned just enough to realize I don’t know anything. I now look at features all around me and realize almost everything — at the right angle and in the right conditions — could release a slide, whereas before I was blissfully unaware of what dangers lurked right below the surface. For now, the best way for me to avoid avalanches is to avoid suspect conditions entirely.    

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