Avalanche survivors share their stories as cautionary winter backcountry tales
KEYSTONE — Winter has arrived in Summit County, and with it comes skiers, snowmobilers and more from around the state and beyond hoping to take advantage of the area’s backcountry.
In light of tightening restrictions at local resorts, along with a recent surge of new customers to equipment retailers for skins and splitboards, officials are expecting one of the busiest seasons ever in the backcountry. But the exploration of Colorado’s wilds always will come with risks, and officials are urging everyone to make sure they’re totally prepared before taking on the challenge.
“We think we’re going to have lots of rookies in the backcountry, perhaps not well equipped or trained,” said Anna DeBattiste, spokesperson for the Summit County Rescue Group. “… For the experienced folks, it’s important for us to remember what kind of community we are. We don’t want to be trying to shut people out of the backcountry because of what we think will happen or because we think we’re the gatekeepers and newbies don’t belong there. We need to think about how we can all be a part of making it safer, helping people get educated and sharing the outdoors that we all love.”
While many will answer to the allure of untouched powder this winter, the stakes of being prepared and thinking ahead in the backcountry is often life or death. And for individuals who survive a mistake on the slopes, the incident can be dramatically life altering.
On Feb. 15, 2004, David Benson, of Fort Collins, and his friends were skiing in the backcountry near Herman Gulch east of Loveland Ski Area. After a hike to the top, Benson said there was a disagreement within the party about whether the slope was safe to ride, with more experienced members pushing to try another chute.
The concerns went unheeded, and the group triggered an avalanche shortly thereafter. The slide carried Benson about 500 feet down the mountain resulting in several severe injuries, including lasting damage to his spinal cord. He said he doesn’t remember the incident, aside from what friends and officials told him afterward.
“You wake up in a hospital bed to realize you can’t move your fingers or anything below your arms,” Benson said. “People have to explain to you what happened, and you’re seeing your parents having flown out here being in total shock. It’s a huge amount to take in, and there are more pressing things like learning to brush your teeth, learning to get dressed and adapting to being in a chair, thinking that’s going to be your new life moving forward.”
Nearly 17 years later, Benson said he’s come a long way in his recovery, taking part in sports like adaptive skiing and rugby. He’s also learned to walk again for short distances with the help of forearm crutches. But his injuries still serve as a reminder of the mistakes that lead to the avalanche.
Benson said he’d taken an avalanche safety course, he’d gone backcountry skiing before, and he thinks he got cocky before the accident.
“Coming to terms with that kind of stuff, the changes to your body, is a big deal,” Benson said. “I’m fortunate for the recovery I’ve had, but every day I know my life changed irrevocably more than 16 years ago. … If we had really listened to the whole group and thought about why those team members were concerned, we would have made a better decision and bailed.
“The message is that you want to be realistic about what your actual skills are in terms of understanding the danger you’re in, and that when there are members of the group that have more experience or concerns, to really listen to that.”
But even experts can make dangerous mistakes in the backcountry.
Greg Shaffran, of Aspen, has been teaching avalanche training courses for nearly 15 years in the Roaring Fork Valley, and he’s been caught in two avalanches — most recently a relatively minor slide on Green Mountain near Ashcroft in 2017.
Shaffran led his group to the top of a slope he had never skied before. In retrospect, he said he should have stuck to more familiar terrain. While neither Shaffran nor anyone in his party was injured in the resulting slide, Shaffran said he’s living proof that comfort and experience in the backcountry, along with social pressures, can often lead even the most experienced individuals to let their guards down.
“What happens is when people go out and the safe line has been skied, you end up going to another line,” Shaffran said. “… The whole hike up, I had all the reasons and theories about why it was an appropriate run to ski. I was looking for more information and conclusions to point me into a decision I’d already made. I wanted to ski that run as opposed to acknowledging there was uncertainty.”
Shaffran said mistakes are inevitable for backcountry users, but recreationists should take the time to learn from others’ experiences, internalize the dangers involved and expand their definitions of a “successful day” on the slopes to keep out of trouble.
“When you have more ideas for what will make it a successful day, and it’s not pitted on skiing this one really steep line, it’s going to give you the ability to be flexible going out there,” Shaffran said. “When you have a narrow focus, it’s easy to make bad decisions. The more I’ve learned, the more cautious I’ve become. It took me 10 years of teaching avalanche classes to feel comfortable standing in front of a group and looking at a snow pit and saying, ‘I don’t know what this means.’ And that we can go somewhere else.”
• Colorado Avalanche Information Center: Avalanche.state.co.us
• Open Snow: OpenSnow.com
• Colorado Mountain School: ColoradoMountainSchool.com
• Rocky Mountain Guides: RockyMountainGuides.com
• Colorado Adventure Guides: ColoradoAdventureGuides.com
• Backcountry Babes: BackcountryBabes.com
Backcountry visitors should also take some time to complete the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s free Know Before You Go avalanche awareness program and should check the local forecasts daily to get a sense of the current danger level. Backcountry users also should consider taking one of several avalanche safety training courses available in the county.
The Summit County Rescue Group is also hoping to encourage better safety measures for backcountry users this year, including the planned installation of avalanche beacon checks at trailheads along areas like Loveland Pass and new social media messaging campaigns featuring some of the area’s rescue animals.