Avalanche awareness: Know Before You Go
November 17, 2016
Winter is coming and despite the unseasonably warm late fall in Grand County the sky will, hopefully, soon begin unleashing torrents of fluffy white cold smoked powder.
As the snow piles up and visitors ascend into the high country many will be headed for places other than our local ski resorts. Many will venture into the dangerous and often unpredictable backcountry to search out untouched snow stashes. The odds are unfortunately strong that at least one person who heads into the off-piste areas of Grand County this year won't make it home; taken by the white behemoths we call avalanches.
Grand County's main traffic artery, US Highway 40, crosses the continental divide at Berthoud Pass; a former ski area that is inundated in winter with backcountry riders. The dynamic of an abandoned ski resort, and the easy access to unmaintained mountain slopes, means folks can quickly get themselves into dangerous territory.
Grand County's Search and Rescue force is often called to the Berthoud area after skiers or snowboarders kick off avalanches, the results are often tragic. So if you're hoping to head into the backcountry this winter either get educated, or just don't go; plain and simple.
Last week on Thursday Nov. 10 Jamie Wolter, Director of Mountain Operations at Granby Ranch, gave a free avalanche awareness class at the Fraser Valley Library. The class was not a formal avalanche safety class. Instead the class last Thursday provided a broad overview of what steps beginner backcountry skiers and snowboarders need to take before heading out.
The class was based on the Know Before You Go five-step safety system: Get the gear, Get the training, Get the forecast, Get and picture, and Get out of harms way.
The class kicked off with a brief video on avalanche awareness and the importance of proper avalanche safety training. In one of the more harrowing scenes a young man recounted the story of a friend who died after kicking off an avalanche following his third turn of the run. With tears in his eyes the young man looked into the camera and said, "after the accident, we were driving home and I thought about those three turns. It wasn't worth it."
After the video Wolter began his presentation with some up front realities of avalanche safety. Wolter pointed out avalanche science, which is used to inform avalanche safety, is inexact. But despite that reality Wolter said anyone who travels into the mountains in winter needs to have at least a basic understanding of avalanches and how to avoid them. He also pointed out the most popular backcountry area in Grand County, Berthoud Pass, is very close to US Highway 40, which can create a false sense of security in backcountry riders.
Colo. tends to see a higher percentage of avalanches annually, due to our relatively shallow snowpack, than most of the US. As snowpack becomes deeper the overall stability of the snow increases, generally speaking. There were a total of five avalanche fatalities in Colo. last year, out of a total of 29. On average around 30 people are killed by avalanches each year in the US.
Wolter pointed out to the class a few common misconceptions about avalanches including the notion that you can ski out of an avalanche once it is initiated. "The snow around you just collapses," Wolter said. "It breaks like a pane of glass. It just sucks you in."
Another myth Wolter dispelled is the notion that sound can trigger avalanches, a common misconception. When people are caught in avalanches 90 percent of the time it is the victim, or someone in their party, who triggered the event.
Roughly one-quarter of all people who die from an avalanche die from trauma sustained during the incident. In other words one-fourth of all avalanche fatalities result from people hitting rocks, trees or other debris while the avalanche is still moving. In such cases the speed of an avalanche rescue makes no difference.
Avalanches have tragically killed people in ways you would not necessarily assume. Wolter recounted a particular story about a backcountry rider touring near Saint Mary's Glacier who was caught up in an avalanche and swept away into a nearby lake and drowned.
Statistically speaking though the largest number of all avalanche fatalities, 73 percent, result from suffocation. If someone is buried in snow from an avalanche they have about 20 to 30 minutes before they will suffocate from the carbon dioxide they breath out. After an avalanche occurs the snow hardens and it is impossible for an individual who is truly buried to extricate herself.
This means that if you are caught in an avalanche and you are by yourself there is little chance of survival. "If you don't have a partner out there you don't have a prayer for rescue," Wolter said.
According to Wolter if you are relying on Search and Rescue (SAR) to rescue you from an avalanche your odds of survival are, "probably less than five-percent". The stark reality is it simply takes SAR more than 20 to 30 minutes to mobilize and get up the mountain.
If you want to tackle some of the backcountry this winter follow the advice of those who know the real dangers. First things first, get proper avalanche safety gear to include at least a beacon/transceiver, a probe pole and a shovel. Second, take a formal avalanche safety class; just do it. Once you've done both of those things you're ostensibly ready for the backcountry.
From that point the third thing you will need to do is stay up to date on your local forecast. The American Avalanche Association provides daily avalanche forecasts and updates on the website http://www.avalanche.org.
After you head out to the mountains you'll want to "get the picture" by keeping your eyes peeled and staying attuned to the changing conditions of the mountains. Pay special attention for recent avalanche activity, changing wind, snowfall, temperatures and listen closely for sounds of cracking or collapsing snow.
Finally get out of harms way. Don't rest or wait in a potential avalanche path. Don't ride slopes you even think might be dangerous, because as Wolter explained the best bet for survival is, "don't get caught in the first place… It really is about habits in the backcountry."