As the snow continues to pile up in Colorado Ski Country, we think it's as good a time as any to provide you with some resources for how to stay safe in the backcountry as well as in-bounds at certain resorts where avalanches could potentially be a hazard.
There are some fantastic resources out there to help you navigate snow hazards, medical hazards, and even human hazards such as poor judgement and decision-making skills in the face of massive lines and fresh tracks. Two great resources to start with are Backcountry Access (BCA) and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).
BCA's website has a page called 'learn avalanche safety' where you can read up on tips for avoiding avalanches, rescuing victims, resources and trainings, as well as enlightening success stories. They also have an avalanche awareness guide for download. Both BCA and AIARE abide by a 5-step method to stay safe in any snow-heavy conditions.
1) Get the gear
Buy quality safety equipment if you're going into the backcountry (beacon, shovel, probe, avalanche airbag, emergency communication device), and have the best gear possible even in the front country in order to prevent potential hazards (first aid kit, extra layers, and maybe even a beacon, shovel, and probe in certain areas). Along with step 4, make sure you have terrain information and photos, a map, a gps device, and a charged smartphone or radio. Whether in the backcountry or front, make sure to practice with your equipment before heading out to avoid encountering an emergency situation and not knowing how to effectively, efficiently, and safely manage it.
2) Get the training
Take an avalanche safety and awareness course! They are held all over the state, usually put on by AIARE through community colleges, universities, community centers, gear shops, etc. These courses will help teach you how to read a slope and how to make the necessary decisions to keep you and your group safe in avalanche terrain. They will teach you the technical skills for using the required gear in rescue scenarios as well as the human influences that can change decisions, outlooks, and outcomes.
There are many different courses to choose from, including AIARE I: Three Day Course, AIARE I: Split Course, AIARE I: Hut Trip, AIARE Avalanche Rescue, AIARE II, Avalanche Field Review, and Avalanche Awareness Clinics. Check out avtraining.org for avalanche course dates, providers, resources for instructors, and scholarship opportunities for the training courses.
Another way to stay safe and ensure the best possible outcomes in any situation is to learn how to provide first aid to a victim, even if the injury was not from an avalanche. There are many different CPR courses happening around the state constantly, so make sure you chose the one that's best for you (courses for the public, for childcare, for healthcare professionals, etc). Search CPR courses in your area: the American Red Cross and CPR Choice Colorado are great websites to find courses all over the state.
Other trainings to obtain are in wilderness medicine such as Wilderness First Aid (WFA) and Wilderness First Responder (WFR). The care required for crises in the backcountry differs from that in the front country because you are farther from immediate, definitive medical care and your contact time with patients is generally higher. These medical trainings, especially WFR, are amazing resources to have, even if you never have to use them in a real emergency. Knowing how to remain calm and feel confident in your training is almost as valuable as the medical knowledge itself. Even if you're shredding the frontcountry, most ski patrol will be grateful to have someone with a little medical knowledge keeping the patient calm and managing any life threats in the time it takes them to reach the scene.
3) Get the forecast
Read the snow report for the last few days: CSCUSA's snow report page is a great resource for this! The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a good spot to find the weather forecast, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) gives avalanche reports for all areas of the state with new snow, as well as accident reports if there was an avalanche.
4) Get the picture
Make sure you know the route and research it thoroughly. CalTopo is a great resource for finding and creating personalized topographic maps of your planned route, as well as potential plan B, C, etc. Make a plan before you go of what terrain you aim to be on, what terrain you absolutely will avoid, as well as where you might need to make critical decisions once you get to the slopes.
This point also applies to the front country: know your group's skill level and comfort zones. Taking people out who are not prepared or comfortable in more advanced terrain is the first way that bad stories can happen. Keep everyone safe and happy both in-bounds and out-!
5) Get out of harm's way
This step mostly entails knowing the dangers and off-limits terrain and avoiding them. If you take any medical courses, one of the first things you will learn is to not create any more victims by putting yourself in danger to rescue someone else. This is good advice while skiing in-bounds as well: don't duck ropes. It's not worth potentially losing your pass and it's certainly not worth a life lost to carelessness. Just because it's still on the resort, doesn't mean it's maintained for avalanche safety. Stay in-bounds if you're in-bounds, and stay safe with as much training and know-how as possible if you're in the backcountry.
More of a visual learner? Check out http://avtraining.org/be-avalanche-aware/ to watch these steps played out with real people and their real stories.
If you are interested in updating First Aid kits, frontcountry gear, or looking into backcountry safety gear, here are some ideas for places to purchase:
- Your local mountaineering shop/secondhand gear shop (Make sure anything from here is reliable and in good condition)
- REI - check out https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/avalanche-basics.html
- Backcountry Access (BCA)
- Black Diamond
- Mountain Hub
- Backcountry - take a peek at https://www.backcountry.com/sc/avalanche-safety-101
No matter where you find yourself on a mountain, whether you're skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, in-bounds, or out-of-bounds, make sure to set yourself up for success. Have the training, have the gear, and remember that ultimately, Mother Nature is in charge. These steps and pointers above will help you have a better, more amiable connection to Her in times of epic pow days. Snow, although it looks like glitter from the sky, isn't magic. If you know what to avoid and how best to stay safe, you can increase your chances of success and an incredible day by huge margins. Stay safe and have fun with all this new fun stuff falling from the sky!