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Powder tip of the day: Don’t die in it

Janet Urquhart
Participants in this year's Mountain Rescue Aspen avalanche workshop got tips on "reading" the snowpack during a day of instruction on Richmond Ridge. (Janet Urquhart/The Aspen Times)
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“You have the absolute right to die in your national forest.”

That said, a throng of backcountry enthusiasts gathered atop Aspen Mountain on Saturday to focus on not dying in their national forest.

Members of Mountain Rescue Aspen shared their wisdom and experience with slightly more than 100 participants in this year’s avalanche workshop, an annual January event that draws everyone from backcountry novices to those simply looking for a refresher course.

With the cost of the more in-depth Level I and II certification courses running in the $200-to -$300 range and requiring greater time commitments, the Mountain Rescue course is a less intensive ” and expensive ” option. The evening classroom presentation followed by a day on the back of Aspen Mountain was $30, including a free ride up the gondola.

As always, the two-day course covered the fundamentals of avalanche awareness, including avalanche-hazard evaluation, snow-pit analysis, probe-line methods, use of avalanche beacons, route selection and safe-travel techniques.

“For a lot of people, this may be the only formal avalanche training they ever get,” said David Swersky, Mountain Rescue member. “We get some people who return and take the course for a second or third time.”

Halsted Morris, of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, led the Friday evening class, offering slides and video clips of avalanches. His focus was wise decision-making.

On Saturday, small groups paired with Mountain Rescue members on Richmond Ridge, on the back of Aspen Mountain, for hands-on instruction in the use of avalanche beacons and probes. The day included instruction in snow-pit analysis ” how to dig one, and how to judge the stability of the snowpack.

The day covered both avoiding avalanches and what to do in the event of one.

“You have to be prepared to deal with an avalanche when it happens,” Swersky said. “It’s not just having the equipment ” beacon, shovel and probe ” but knowing how to use it.”

Skiing out to call Mountain Rescue in the event someone is buried in an avalanche means a body-recovery mission, not a rescue, he said. Rescue is up to a buried victim’s companions.

Anyone who ventures out regularly into the backcountry runs a good chance of experiencing an avalanche, Morris warned.

At the very least, anyone who spends time in the backcountry will face some important decisions, added Martha Moran, a member of Mountain Rescue in training and recreation staff manager for the Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District. As a former ski patroller, Moran has experienced her share of slides, including deadly ones.

“If you go out on a regular basis, I don’t know if you’ll experience an avalanche personally, but you will experience making some serious judgment calls,” she said.

“You have the absolute right to die in your national forest,” was how Hugh Zuker, president of Mountain Rescue, put it.

Those who missed this year’s workshop will have to wait until next year to enroll, but several other training options remain available this winter.

Mountain Rescue Aspen conducts free avalanche beacon training twice a month throughout the ski season.

Sessions are held at Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, starting at 6 p.m., on the first Tuesday and last Wednesday of each month. Participants should come prepared to spend an hour or two outside (wear warm clothes and boots).

The sessions offer instruction in beacon use and practice in finding buried beacons. Some beacons will be available to practice with, but if you have one, bring it along. Participants should also bring a headlamp or flashlight.

Aspen Alpine Guides offers Level I and II avalanche training with certified guides.

The remaining Level I courses are Jan. 20-22, Feb. 3-5 and Feb. 17-19. The fee is $185.

A Level II course, involving a hut trip, is March 17-19. The fee is $200. A Level II course will also be offered through Colorado Mountain College on March 21, with a hut trip on March 24-26. Contact CMC for registration information and cost.

Aspen Expeditions, an Aspen-based guide service, is also offering Level I and Level II avalanche courses this winter, instructed by certified guides.

The Level I sessions each include an evening of classroom instruction followed by two field days to learn and practice decision-making skills, route finding, understanding snow, use of avalanche rescue gear (beacons, shovels, probe poles) and hazard assessment. The Level II course runs for three full days.

Aspen Expeditions recommends the courses for anyone who travels outside of controlled ski areas and in avalanche terrain to backcountry ski, snowboard, snowshoe, snowmobile or travel to mountain huts.

The fee for the Level I course is $195. The remaining sessions are scheduled Feb. 3-5, March 7-9 and March 17-19.

Level II courses are scheduled Jan. 27-29 and March 3-5. The cost is $295.

For more information or to sign up for courses, contact Dick Jackson at Aspen Expeditions at (970) 925-7625 or visit http://www.aspenexpeditions.com.

New this winter is avalanche information specific to the Roaring Fork Valley, available from the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center at rfavalanche.org or 920-1664.

For statewide conditions, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is at [ geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche ].

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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