Mountain Rescue Aspen refines efforts to prevent people from dying in avalanches |

Mountain Rescue Aspen refines efforts to prevent people from dying in avalanches

A group searches for a hypothetical buried person with their beacons and probes at a station at the Mountain Rescue Aspen avalanche workshop in January 2016.
Aspen Times file photo

This winter’s snow conditions already have produced an avalanche fatality in southwestern Colorado and at least three close calls in the Aspen area, so it’s fathomable that Mountain Rescue Aspen’s annual avalanche awareness seminar could be a lifesaver.

MRA will host its 34th annual avalanche workshop Jan. 18 and 19. It pre-sold all 100 slots.

“We’ve never had that happen,” MRA volunteer Greg Shaffran said this week.

The rescue organization has boosted its public outreach over the past year by encouraging people to sign up for its newsletter. It publicized the avalanche awareness seminar as well as other public events through its social media and the response was overwhelming.

The avalanche seminar has always been popular, but attendees could usually wiggle in at the last moment. Shaffran said between 30 and 40 people who attended last year signed up to return this year. A change in the format is probably part of the popularity, he said.

As usual, the seminar will feature a mandatory classroom presentation Friday evening. On Saturday, the exclusive focus will be on companion rescue — using a beacon and probe to locate a person buried in a snow slide and digging them out. That’s a skillset that never gets old and practice that’s always useful, Shaffran said.

The fieldwork will be performed Saturday on Richmond Ridge, south of Aspen Mountain.

This year, 15 ski patrollers from the four Aspen Skiing Co. mountains are enrolled, he noted.

Mountain Rescue is reframing the annual seminar as something a backcountry traveler wants to attend for ongoing education. If the seminar continues to pre-sell, Mountain Rescue will consider adding other workshops over the course of the winter, he said.

There are about 40 volunteers helping with the event. The 100 attendees will split into groups of about 12 and practice locating a body-sized target. It takes a lot of effort to set the drill up, but the rewards are definitive.

“You’ll get really good at rescue,” Shaffran said.

That is an essential skill in the Colorado backcountry, given the typical, notorious snow conditions. Once again this season, new snow is falling on old, weak layers and creating conditions ripe for slides.

“Roughly two days ago a warm and windy storm left a widespread natural avalanche cycle across much of the western Colorado Mountains,” the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported on its website Wednesday. “An observer near Marble noted way too many avalanches to count.”

The avalanches above treeline have been larger and more destructive, the center warned.

“The bottom line is that a recent large snow load has over-burdened a weak snowpack, and conditions remain dangerous even though the natural cycle has wound down,” the avalanche forecast said Wednesday.

A group of six backcountry skiers participating in an avalanche safety course triggered a slide Jan. 5. All six members were caught in the avalanche. The slide triggered a second avalanche, which ran over the debris pile of the first slide. One skier was buried in the debris of both slides. He died on site.

The incident drove home the danger of avalanches, even among groups that are prepared.

Earlier this season, a longtime employee with Aspen Mountain Powder Tours was buried while scouting terrain south of Aspen Mountain. His colleague witnessed the slide and was able to quickly locate and dig out the first skier. He suffered only minor injuries.

Other partial burials have resulted from slides this season near Taylor Pass, south of Aspen, and in the Marble area, according to incident reports filed with the avalanche information center.

Mountain Rescue Aspen is urging people interested in its avalanche awareness seminar not to give up despite it being sold out. A waiting list will be started Jan. 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the C.B. Cameron Rescue Center at 37925 Highway 82. In addition, the presentation at 6 p.m. is free and open to the public.

Only registered parties can participate in the field workshop from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 19. The cost is $30.

Go to for more information.