Extreme avalanche danger, caused in part by miserable snow totals early in the season and rotten weather since, has made backcountry ski trips this season dangerous.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Extreme avalanche danger, caused in part by miserable snow totals early in the season and rotten weather since, has made backcountry ski trips this season dangerous.

Protect yourself from avalanches in the backcountry



It’s important to have appropriate equipment including a shovel, for about $50, an avalanche probe for about $50 and an avalanche beacon for about $300.


Poor early-season snowcover and a bad base has led to a dangerous snowpack. When it comes to slopes with a pitch of more than 30 degrees, it may be best to just wait for next year.

Keep up with the conditions

- For local weather conditions and recent coverage of Steamboat Springs weather, visit SteamboatToday.com/weather

- View webcams of Steamboat Springs at SteamboatToday.com/webcams

- For weather information from the National Weather Service, including storm warnings and advisories, visit www.wrh.noaa.gov/

- The Colorado Department of Transportation provides road conditions, closures and traffic cameras at www.cotrip.org. For travel information by phone, call 511 from anywhere in Colorado or dial 303-639-1111.

- Find information about avalanche danger and conditions at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website: www.avalanche.state.co.us.

- For flight information, visit www.flightview.com/ TravelTools/. By phone, call Delta Airlines at (800) 241-4141; United Airlines at (800) 864-8331; and American Airlines at (800) 433-7300

— The best advice, American Avalanche Association President Dale Atkins said, is to wait. Wait until the snow has settled after the big storm when avalanche danger is at its peak. Wait for another day. Wait until next year.

Miserable snow totals early in the season and rotten weather since have given the backcountry snowpack a base that looks more like granulated sugar than Champagne Powder.

That’s not going to change.

“I hate to say the season is shot, but these weaknesses will be with us for the season,” Atkins said. “This is really a winter to dial back one’s expectations for adventure, for tackling the steep and deep. This is a season to stay to the less steep slopes and to be extra cautious.”

Last weekend’s avalanche tragedy in Routt National Forest has Ski Town USA buzzing about the danger. It can’t be eliminated, and the best way to learn to manage it is by taking a class and studying the conditions. In the meantime, there are several ways anyone can minimize that danger.

The ‘duh’ gear

Stocking up on appropriate safety equipment for a backcountry adventure almost goes without saying.

We’ll say it anyway: An avalanche beacon, a shovel and an avalanche probe are a must.

“One piece doesn’t do it,” said Ben Brodsky at Ski Haus. “They’re meant to be used in conjunction. You need all three.”

Brodsky said avalanche beacons can wear out, so don’t just assume a fresh set of batteries will make yours work. An upgrade may be in order after five years. Expect to spend close to $300 on a beacon and another $100 combined on a collapsible shovel and probe.

Backup plan

In so many ways, a cellphone can be a lifesaver, at least one with a charged battery. Atkins said a phone call should be the first step to rescuing a friend, even before pulling out the beacon or the shovel. Make sure you have enough juice by packing an extra battery or a solar or crank charger, all available for less than $30.

Eyes open

A quick check online with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website can tell you all about the avalanche danger in the backcountry, but keeping your eyes and ears open while out there can be even more important.

■ Look for clues in the vegetation. Have trees been broken off or branches stripped from their uphill face? That means avalanches have happened there before, and although it’s not a clue of imminent danger, it means they could happen again.

■ Slopes of a 30-degree pitch and steeper typically are primary avalanche terrain. This year, Atkins said he’s wary even of 25-degree pitches. For a reference point, black diamond runs usually are at 30 degrees or steeper. Intermediate runs are less steep, and a similar pitch in the backcountry will be much safer.

■ “The best clue of avalanche danger is recent avalanches,” Atkins said. Considering a slope’s elevation, compass orientation and pitch will provide a big clue as to what is likely to slide next. Old rules say an avalanche within 48 hours can be useful for that sort of information. This season, a slide still can be useful five or seven days out.

■ Listen to the snow. If it’s collapsing beneath your feet with a “whoomph” sound or cracks are spidering out from each footprint, that means the snow on the bottom is in bad shape and the whole slab could give. Most avalanches occur naturally, but the vast majority that lead to injuries and deaths are caused by their victims.

1 at a time

“Expose only one person to the danger at a time,” Atkins said. Only send one member of the group across or onto it at a time, ensuring even if the snow does give way, most of the party is on hand to help.

That means don’t zip up a dangerous slope on a snowmobile to help a buddy dig a sled out, and it means it may take longer to get a group of skiers across a section.

Time to fly

If an avalanche is coming, always be thinking of a way out. Ski or ride at a 45-degree angle down the slope to get out of the way and maintain speed. Ducking into a boulder field or treed terrain carries risks, but those features also can break up the power of the snow and give you something to hang onto if the worst happens.

Swept away

So it got you. All is not lost, Atkins said. Survivors have been pulled from avalanche fields 24 and even 48 hours after the fall. The first move to better your chances is to let go of your ski poles and non-survival equipment and try and grab onto something solid that isn’t likely to get pushed downhill, such as one of those trees or boulders. “You may not be able to hang on, but every second you do, you’ve let that much more snow go by that can’t bury you,” Atkins said.

If there’s nothing to grab onto, put your arms to your mouth and try to create as much space around your face as possible while the snow is moving.

“Grab your collar or pack strap so you can tuck your face into the crook of your elbow,” Atkins said.

Then try to wiggle and climb. You may end up near the surface.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com


Bill Dalzell 5 years, 3 months ago

What kind of Beacon's Does Ben sell at Ski Haus? Am I the only one that's never heard of a Beacon wearing out in 5 years? Sounds a bit like a scare tactic sales pitch.


bubba 5 years, 3 months ago

I have heard that with time transceivers do not transmit as strong of a signal as they once did, but I don't know if 5 years is a definitive number. If you practice using your transceiver and test them at the trailhead as you should, you will probably notice if the signal is getting weak before it is too late. That can also help you to determine if your cell phone interferes with the signal, as I have heard that some do.

A few years ago a friend came to town and forgot her beacon at home, so we borrowed someone else's for her to use. When we went to test the beacons at the trailhead, it turned out the loaner one did not transmit at all. The owner never practiced or tested it, so he could have been riding for years with a non-functioning beacon...


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