Be safe in the backcountry
It has been 13 years since two of my friends were buried in an avalanche while snowmobiling on Pagoda Peak in Rio Blanco County. One survived. One died. Dan left behind a wife and a young daughter. He was 31.
My past dictates the future, in some ways. I seek opportunity to be better informed and trained about the things that can kill me, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to attend Mountain Rescue Aspen’s Community Avalanche Workshop last weekend.
Though less frequently now than in previous years, I will awaken sometimes to the thundering sound of that snow as it cracked. My sled was facing uphill in the runout zone with the engine off. I don’t think I could have been doing anything more wrong than what I was doing at the moment it mattered the most. The avalanche footprint was about 400 by 400 feet.
The roaring sound of snow and debris racing down the hill was too loud for us to hear the engines of our machines. I wasn’t sure whether mine was running when I pulled out of the runout zone and stopped a few hundred yards away.
We were on an east-facing slope near treeline. We had finished a fun morning ride and were headed back to the cabin for lunch and an afternoon by the fire. The guys just wanted to get one more high mark under their belts before we called it a day. They got it, but it didn’t come for free.
I often think about how unprepared I was for disaster to strike in the backcountry that day. I had absolutely no business being where I was with few tools and no training. We had shovels and a probe but no beacons. We knew approximately where Dan was but not exactly, because we were too busy getting out of the way instead of spotting our guy. We searched and dug in futility, waiting for what seemed like an eternity for search-and-rescue teams from Rio Blanco and Routt counties to arrive. When they did, they found Dan under 3 feet of snow still sitting on his snowmobile. Had we known what we were doing, things might have ended differently.
After a lifetime in the Colorado mountains, I’m sure of one thing: The backcountry is no joke. It doesn’t suffer fools. Anyone who wants to play in some of the world’s most majestic places had better be prepared, which includes being prepared for the worst.
The workshop was a fantastic overview of all the reasons why playing in the backcountry is an at-your-own-risk adventure. But it also reinforced to me that — like anything — training, preparation and equipment make it possible to seek serious adventure in a safe way.
If you get off the beaten path, I encourage you to take an Avalanche I class at the minimum. Get the proper equipment, but more importantly, know how to use it. A world-class beacon park — Snowmass Beacon Park — is in our backyard, near the Fanny Hill trail at Snowmass ski area. It’s free of charge and open to the public. There’s no excuse not to become proficient with your lifeline.
And thank your local rescue teams. We are blessed to have such well-trained teams to do the dangerous work of mountain rescues.
Samantha Johnston is the general manager of The Aspen Times.
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