ASPEN - Colorado's second avalanche fatality of the winter, on Sunday near Marble, might make Mountain Rescue Aspen's annual Avalanche Awareness Workshop all the more timely.
The event takes place this weekend, with an evening classroom session Friday followed by a daylong workshop Saturday on Richmond Ridge, near the summit of Aspen Mountain. The workshop covers avalanche hazard evaluation, route selection, safe travel techniques, companion rescue, conducting a beacon search and efficient shoveling.
As often occurs, winter in Colorado began with the sort of conditions that make the state ripe for avalanches, said David Swersky, a longtime member of Mountain Rescue. Early snow in the mountains followed by a prolonged dry spell, with high daytime temperatures and freezing nights, produced sugar snow - an unstable bottom layer that can continue to affect snow stability well into the winter, he said.
"That first layer of snow persists, and as snow falls on top of it, it's like trying to store plywood on top of marbles," Swersky said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Monday described conditions in the Aspen area this way: "Triggered slides that occur today in the recent storm snow or wind slabs have the potential to step down into the older persistent slabs and the loose faceted snow near the ground, taking the whole snowpack with them. Backcountry travelers need to approach steep terrain with caution. Collapsing snow, whumpfing sounds and any recent avalanche activity are signs of instability to watch for. You should stay away from steep terrain if you find these signs of instability."
Participants in the workshop may register in advance at www.mountainrescueaspen.org or show up Friday from 5:30 to 6 p.m. to sign up before the classroom session at The Little Nell hotel. Local avalanche forecaster Brian McCall, with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, will give a lecture and slide show from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
The Friday night class is mandatory in order to take part in Saturday's outing, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. atop Aspen Mountain. Back at The Little Nell, a 3 p.m. wrap-up session and group rescue problem will conclude the day.
The fee for both days is $30. Aspen Skiing Co. will provide participants who don't have ski passes with lift tickets for Saturday's mountaintop session.
"Even people who have more advanced training, it's just a way to brush up your skills," Swersky said. "It's a great way to practice your stuff."
On Richmond Ridge, participants will split into groups of eight to 10 people, each accompanied by a couple of Mountain Rescue members. Come prepared for snow travel, either on snowshoes or with telemark or alpine-touring skis with skins. Snowmobilers are also welcome and will have their own group. Those who have beacons, shovels and probes should bring them along.
McCall will dig a snow pit to show participants the layered conditions within the snowpack, but each group also will have a chance to dig its own pit and assess conditions.
"The main focus of the workshop has become making safe decisions and facilitating companion rescue," Swersky said. A practice rescue gives participants a chance to put newly learned skills along with beacons, shovels and probes to use.
Incidentally, Mountain Rescue offers a free beacon park on Fanny Hill at Snowmass, directly across from the mall. It's available to those who want to practice their skills by conducting a search for one or more buried beacons.