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Avalanche season is upon us; best advice is to be prepared

Jeremy Heiman

A workshop in Aspen this Friday and Saturday can help outdoor enthusiasts be prepared as the central Rockies begin what may be another nasty avalanche season.

Because snowfall has been minimal so far, a lot of people may feel this is not a major avalanche year, said David Swersky, who is coordinating the program for Mountain Rescue, Aspen.

But this is a typical Colorado winter, with early snow followed by a dry spell in December. The result is usually a serious snow-slide situation when heavy snow arrives later in the winter, he said.

“It’s like trying to store plywood on marbles,” said Swersky, describing new snow loads on top of layers of old snow.

This year’s workshop, presented by Nick Logan of the Colorado Avalanche Awareness Center, will be Swersky’s 14th or 15th. Over those years, attendance has jumped from about 20 people to around 100, he said.

“The primary goal of the workshop,” Swersky said, “will be to give participants the ability to make safe decisions on backcountry travel based on terrain, snowpack and weather.” He called these factors “the avalanche triad.”

The secondary goal of the training is to teach people what to do in an avalanche, he said. Colorado: Avalanche capital While avalanche preparedness is a lifetime learning process, said Logan, the two-day course will cover the basics for backcountry travel: how to recognize avalanche danger and avoid it. The workshop will offer hands-on experience in assessing avalanche danger and how to rescue avalanche victims.

Colorado has the nation’s highest annual avalanche death rate, largely because of its notoriously unstable snowpack. According to the Associated Press, one-third of all avalanche deaths in the United States occur in Colorado, which averages five deaths per winter. Colorado averages about 2,000 reported avalanches in a snow season.

Swersky noted that Colorado leads in the number of avalanches, despite the fact that Utah gets more snow, because Colorado’s typical weather patterns create weak layers in the snowpack.

Logan said last season 101 people were caught in Colorado avalanches. Five people were injured and six died. To date this year, seven people have been caught in slides, with one injured and no one killed. Causes of killer snow Most avalanches that kill people don’t just happen randomly, according to Logan. Instead, the slides are triggered by people – often the avalanche victims.

Although figures are not available on number of people venturing into the backcountry, Logan said it’s certain that the number is climbing. “Equipment is getting better and people are getting more adventurous,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be the risk-takers who are in danger,” Logan added. “Anyone who goes for a picnic is potentially in danger. That’s why this is really important for anyone who goes into the backcountry.”

Cross country skiers, snowboarders, ski mountaineers, snowshoers, and virtually anyone who sets foot in the backcountry in the winter is encouraged to attend the workshop. Snowmobilers, with their growing numbers and more powerful machines, are the fastest growing group of avalanche victims, and are especially encouraged to attend. The sessions The first session of the workshop will be Friday, Jan. 8, at the Grand Aspen Hotel from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., with registration starting at 6 p.m. Information on the dynamics of the snowpack and avalanches, route selection, decision making and safe travel techniques will be discussed.

On Saturday, Jan. 9, workshop participants will meet at the Silver Queen Gondola for a field day on Aspen Mountain from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Attendees will learn about snow-pit analysis and instability tests, probe search methods for finding avalanche victims, safe-travel practice, and a group-rescue problem.

The $20 registration fee includes one gondola ride to the top of Aspen Mountain. Participants must attend Friday evening to participate on Saturday.

Logan said participants in Saturday’s session should come dressed for winter conditions and bring basic outdoor gear, skis or snowshoes and avalanche beacons and shovels if they have them.

Enrollment is unlimited and everyone is invited. For further information, call 923-3456.


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