Backcountry safety important as ski season gets into gear | SteamboatToday.com

Backcountry safety important as ski season gets into gear

Austin Colbert

— Maybe it's the isolation getting to him, but Alex Pashley's fondness for playing with avalanche transceivers is both odd and incredibly smart.

"It's fun. It's like an adult game of hide and seek," Pashley said. "If you don't know how to use your beacon or anything about it, it's basically a body recovery device. If you get buried, and nobody knows how to use the beacon to find you … it doesn't matter."

These beacons, which are meant to aid rescuers in finding a person should disaster occur, can be lifesavers. Pashley, a Steamboat Springs resident who works for SmartWool, is a savvy veteran backcountry skier and snowboarder, and he understands how easily misfortune can find someone while out playing with Old Man Winter.

"You can get into a lot of trouble really quick, for sure," Pashley said. "You hope that you never have to use it, but you want to know the person you are going out with knows how to use a beacon and knows what they are doing in case you get in a slide."

Knowing how to be safe in the winter is important for any skier or snowboarder, but it's especially vital for those who prefer the isolation of the backcountry. Routt County is a smorgasbord for those types, with the cross country skiers often being the first on the snow when the powder begins to fall.

"We've been skiing for a month now up on Bruce's Trail on Rabbit Ears," said Josh Smullin, a cross country ski coach with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. "We have plenty of snow up there. It's very, very good. It's maybe the best place in the country, early season. We seem to get snow in October, and we have the ability to groom it. That's a big benefit to us in our club."

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Beyond Rabbit Ears, backcountry fans also take to Buffalo Pass in early winter, a popular spot for freeskiers and snowboarders. North and South Routt also provide plenty of good backcountry options.

With 3.75 feet of snow having fallen at the Steamboat Ski Area prior to Saturday's early opening, conditions have been solid for making early season runs and backcountry expeditions.

"Pretty much right now, if you see any deformity in the snow, you aim away from it. It's still pretty early, for sure," Pashley said. "But as far as it goes, overall, we are better off than a lot of places."

Pashley is primarily a snowboarder. He likes to take his snowmobile deep into the backcountry, where he then uses a splitboard to hike into wilderness areas before letting loose. Pushing his 40s, Pashley has never experienced real disaster in the backcountry. A lot of this has to do with luck, but the rest is about his extensive attention to detail and his preparedness.

"The biggest thing you want is to be safe," Pashley said. "Here, you are not dealing with huge faces that are going to rip. There are a few spots that might be huge that would rip out and be pretty catastrophic avalanches, but for the most part around here, I think it's terrain traps. So it's little features and little canyons and crevices. And that can almost be more dangerous."

Currently, avalanche conditions in Routt County are only moderate at the tree line and above, with almost no risk below that, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. However, it doesn't take an avalanche for disaster to strike, and with ski season getting officially underway this weekend in Steamboat, veterans like Pashley can't emphasize enough the importance of being safe.

"A lot of times, the likelihood is nothing is going to happen to you on that face. But it's the one time it takes to be life-ending and catastrophic," Pashley said. "If anyone is feeling not comfortable with something, they should definitely speak up. Live to ski another day."

For those who prefer the relative safety of a resort, the Steamboat Ski Area will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the first time it has opened early since 2002. Only a handful of runs will be available, most accessed by Christie Peak Express. A single day lift pass costs $49. Season passes will be accepted.

The ski area will be closed Monday and Tuesday before reopening for its annual Scholarship Day on Wednesday.

To reach Austin Colbert, call 970-871-4204, email acolbert@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Austin_Colbert