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Colorado avalanche experts warn of rising risk as winter progresses

CAIC Benefit Bash

Friends of CAIC hosts the ninth-annual event this Saturday:

Dec. 3, 5-10 p.m.; Advance tickets – $40

Breckenridge Riverwalk Center

150 W Adams Ave

This event will sell out, get your tickets early.

Consistent snow appears to have finally hit the region, which is a welcome sight for most, but it can also come with its own set of hazards.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the state Department of Natural Resource’s program providing avalanche information and education, provides daily backcountry forecasts for 10 regions in the state including one for Summit County and Vail. CAIC predicted moderate danger — a 2 on a 5-level scale — in the zone on north-, northeast- and east-facing slopes near tree line and above for Tuesday and Wednesday. Even with sparse coverage in many areas under current conditions, there is potential for setting off an avalanche big enough to cover an individual.

“Later in the year there are a lot of options for [backcountry] terrain, but there aren’t that many yet with deep enough snow to ride and not hit a rock,” said Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC. “That same terrain is also where you’re most likely to trigger an avalanche. Right now, the best riding conditions are also where there’s the highest avalanche danger.”

An average of 27 people die in the United States each winter from avalanches. The 2016 ski season was about normal for slide fatalities with 29, including five in Colorado.

Since consistent records started being kept in 1950, Colorado has led the nation in avalanche deaths, with 275 — nearly twice as many as any other state. January tends to be the most treacherous for both Colorado and throughout the country, with February a close second. That said, such incidents are still possible as early as October or November, warns Greene.

“There’s fatalities in every month of the year,” he said. “Something to remember about Colorado is the periods where we typically see more deaths are around midwinter, but we can have dangerous avalanche conditions any month of the year. It just depends on the weather and snow cycles.”

Playing the Odds

In the past decade, there have been two November avalanche deaths in the state, one in 2006 and another in 2011. The same midwinter-type conditions can exist later in the season as well in April and May, and it was April 2013 that saw the state’s deadliest avalanche accident since the ‘60s when six were buried — five of them perished — in the Sheep Creek drainage just north of Loveland Pass.

Avalanches are most likely on 30-to-45-degree slopes, but can be triggered on lower-angle inclines, too, or below these steeper slopes. Understanding such key elements of prospective slides, and how to properly evaluate snowpacks, are fundamental aspects for avoiding getting caught in one yourself.

Aside from keeping up to date on current conditions (colorado.gov/avalanche), the CAIC recommends always carrying life-saving rescue equipment in the backcountry now that we’ve entered the period of deeper snowpacks. That means every member of a crew packing an avalanche beacon, probe pole and collapsible shovel, no exceptions. For those desiring an even higher level of security, individual airbag packs are one choice, with some built right into backpacks, vests and coats.

Greene also suggested the RECCO Rescue System, which is a reflector integrated right into high-end ski and outdoors equipment. The device’s antenna transmits a specific frequency signal that gets picked up by detectors commonly used by search and rescue outfits.

‘Know Before You Go’

Depending on one’s goals with the amount of time spent out in the backcountry, various classes are available each year, from short online courses to multi-day safety seminars that include time in the field. CAIC’s own free avalanche awareness program, “Know Before You Go,” is a solid entry point and will be offered at Elevate coSpace in Frisco (711 Granite St.) at its season kickoff on Saturday, Dec. 10. That event, featuring OpenSnow’s Joel Gratz, runs from 4-8 p.m. and is open to the public, though a $5 donation is requested to go toward the sponsoring nonprofit groups.

Avalanches were also affirmed an inherent risk of skiing at the state’s ski areas by the Colorado Supreme Court earlier this year, meaning having some small amount of schooling on the subject in the unlikely event you encounter an inbounds slide could be valuable. The RECCO system and/or bringing along rescue equipment no matter where you are skiing or snowboarding is not a bad idea either.

“If you want to know about avalanches, but the backcountry is not necessarily your main goal, ‘Know Before You Go’ is a good start,” said Greene. “A little bit of knowledge can save your life.”

Generally speaking, because there haven’t been a massive number of storms at this stage in the game, a momentous or life-threatening avalanche is indeed less probable. It doesn’t mean one can’t happen, however — two compact ones were reported in Summit County just last week — or that a smaller and sudden layer of snow couldn’t push you into a gully or knock you off your feet and into a pile of rocks at high speeds. It’s why planning ahead and knowing the signs ahead of departure remains essential.

No deaths from avalanche have occurred in Colorado for the 2016-17 season, but it’s likely only a matter of time.

“Not yet,” said Greene. “It doesn’t have to happen every year, but we have an average of six killed each year, and the most likely outcome of the winter is more than one person will die of avalanche in Colorado.”