Mountain Rescue Aspen workshop helps backcountry travelers make good decisions |

Mountain Rescue Aspen workshop helps backcountry travelers make good decisions

A backcountry gate at the top of Aspen Mountain warns travelers to be aware of dangers. Mountain Rescue Aspen is hosting an avalanche awareness workshop this weekend.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |


What: MRA Avalanche Awareness Workshop

When: Friday 6-9 p.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

Cost: $30


When Mountain Rescue Aspen holds its 32nd annual avalanche safety workshop Friday and Saturday, the goal won’t be to browbeat participants into avoiding the backcountry but equipping them with good decision-making skills.

Mountain Rescue Aspen veteran David Swersky, who handles publicity for the workshops, said that while the number of backcountry adventurers is surging, deaths have always been an unfortunate byproduct of adventure in the mountains around Aspen. He has been a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen since 1980 and served as president from 1988 to 1990. Without giving it much thought, he recalls missions in each of the past four decades where mountain rescue had to retrieve a body: Powerline on the backside of Aspen Mountain, Five Fingers outside of Aspen Highlands ski area, Hurricane Gulch off of Richmond Ridge, Keno Gulch off the west side of Aspen Mountain. The list goes on and on.

“All of those were accessed from the sidecountry,” he said, referring to terrain that can be reached by leaving a gate from ski areas onto national forest lands.

“Some of those were what you’d call poor decision making and some were bad luck,” Swersky said.

Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers saw a need back in 1984 to educate people about avalanches. Between 20 and 30 people enrolled in the class the first couple of years. A deadly slide on an approach to Castle Peak prior to the third year of the safety class sent attendance soaring. It has remained at 80 to 100 participants per year ever since.

“It’s our major community outreach,” Swersky said.

In addition to the allure to descend in the sidecountry from ski areas, there is growing participation in backcountry adventure. In the past few years, technological breakthroughs in alpine touring skis have created equipment that’s much lighter for climbing without sacrificing stability for descending.

In the Aspen area, Marble has become phenomenally popular.

In addition, more powerful snowmobiles have sent people exploring farther into the backcountry than ever, not necessarily in the Aspen area but in many parts of the West, Swersky said.

Mountain Rescue Aspen’s two-day workshops include classroom study on Friday evening and a field day on the back of Aspen Mountain on Saturday. The Friday class session is 6 to 9 p.m. The Saturday field day is 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The workshop is good for both the beginning adventurer looking to add to their knowledge and veteran explorers who need a refresher, he said. For example, this winter has the potential to build stability in the snowpack earlier because there wasn’t a large, early layer that rotted during a warm lull in storms. However, pockets of instability will always exist, Swersky said, and it is good for travelers to remain aware of those danger areas.

Participants will be divided into groups on the field day and sent through six stations. The stations include snow pit analysis, signal acquisition, pinpoint searches, strategic shoveling and two different rescue scenarios to apply the new skills. The workshop is recommended for skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers and snowboarders.

All the work is designed with one goal in mind. “The real thing is, ‘How do you make your decisions?’” Swersky said.

That is critical, he said, because backcountry travelers and their companions need to rely on one another to stay safe and survive a slide. If the ski patrol or Mountain Rescue Aspen is called, it’s usually for retrieval rather than rescue.

“You are your brother’s keeper in the backcountry,” Swersky said.

He called the workshops his passion. He knows firsthand the safety class has paid off. Numerous people who have taken the workshop over the years have stopped him and related how it assisted them. His best guess is about 20 percent of the participants go on to take Level I and Level II avalanche safety classes from commercial ventures in the Aspen area.

This year’s workshop will be the first in Mountain Rescue Aspen’s C.B. Cameron Mountain Rescue Center at the Aspen Business Center. The cost is $30. Preregistration prior to 5 p.m. Thursday is suggested via

The cost covers the Friday lecture, Saturday terrain tour, one ride up the Silver Queen Gondola and avalanche education materials. Products will be on display and available at discounted prices.

Parking is limited at Mountain Rescue Aspen’s headquarters, so carpooling and bus use is recommended.

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