Safety from the slides: CAIC looking to educate what is anticipated to be a large backcountry crowd

As skiers set their sights on the backcountry, efforts are ramped up to provide information to keep them safe


What: Snow Science Webinar

When: Dec. 11, 6 p.m.

Where: Free, online


Several new tactics will be used to try to keep people safe in what’s expected to be a very busy winter in the backcountry.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District will post informational signs created by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center at about 12 popular backcountry trailheads in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valley.

“I think we all realize we’re going to have a busy winter similar to the busy summer we had and we want to make sure we’re setting visitors up for success with as much information as we can provide,” said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. “These signs are one tool and we hope that folks will do some homework before they get to the forest and trails, but these signs will help reinforce the message and the things they need to be aware of when they’re in the backcountry.”

Mountain Rescue Aspen will shelve its early season, in-person avalanche safety session and replace it with a webinar on snow science on Dec. 11.

Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is urging backcountry travelers to sign a pledge vowing to check CAIC avalanche forecasts before venturing out.

But — as always — safety in the backcountry comes down to good individual choices, said Greg Shaffran, a representative of Mountain Rescue Aspen.

“It’s about making good, cautious decisions,” he said.

MRA has several tools to help with good decisions on the winter page on its recently revamped website, There are videos available on topics such as Know Before You Go, How to Plan a Backcountry Tour and Beacon Trainings.

Signs with this content on avalanche safety will be posted at popular trailheads on national forest in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River valleys.
CAIC/courtesy photo

In addition, MRA will team with the avalanche center and the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies to present a Snow Science Webinar Friday, Dec. 11, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Shaffran said Mountain Rescue has collected feedback for years from people attending its avalanche safety events. A common request was to offer more information on snow science.

“It’s different than making decisions about avalanche terrain,” Shaffran said.

He reached out to researchers and got their enthusiastic agreement to participate. Colorado Avalanche Information Center deputy director Brian Lazar will speak online about “Fracture Mechanics 101: How Slabs Fail.”

Jeff Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, will speak on “Monitoring and Studying Colorado’s Snowpack.”

The online session will also feature an introduction of Polly Layton, the new backcountry forecaster for the Aspen Zone.

About 100 people signed up for the webinar shortly after MRA sent out a notice about it Monday morning. By Tuesday morning the interest had grown to about 200 people, according to Shaffran.

Lazar said he was excited to find there is demand for the snow science topics he finds so fascinating.

“It’s good to know I’m not alone here,” he said.

Colorado media has been flooded with speculation that backcountry activity will soar this winter because of limited access to lift-served skiing during the pandemic.

“Uphilling” — putting climbing skins on skis and walking up groomed slopes at the resorts or untamed terrain in the backcountry — has gained in popularity the last couple of decades. Waves of people new to the sport bought alpine touring gear after the lifts were abruptly shut down due to the spread of coronavirus last March.

“I think safe money is on increased use in the backcountry this year,” Lazar said.

The U.S. Forest Service anticipates increased interest. It asked CAIC for several of the avalanche safety signs it has been posting in places such as Summit County trailheads and the popular 10th Mountain Division huts over the past year. In the Roaring Fork Valley, signs will be posted at the Independence Pass closure gate, Ashcroft, Express Creek, Maroon Creek Road, Basalt Mountain and several sites in the Crystal River Valley, including Thompson Creek, Huntsman’s Ridge/McClure Pass and a couple of spots in Marble.

The signs feature graphics on obvious signs of instability, factors that increase avalanche danger and ways to reduce risk. The signs also urge people to refer to the avalanche center’s website and mobile app.

And speaking of the website, it currently features a post from Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a nonprofit group, that urges people to “pledge to check the avalanche forecast before you head into the backcountry this winter.” There is a link where readers can take the pledge.

“It was designed as low-hanging fruit for people,” said Aaron Carlson, Friends of CAIC executive director.

So far, 2,250 people have taken the pledge, he said. They will receive information about snow safety over the winter.

While the prospects are good for increased backcountry visits, Lazar and Shaffran said their organizations won’t alter their approach to the winter.

“I don’t think anticipation of being busier will affect how we plan,” Shaffran said. “For the rescue side, we are prepared as ever.”

Lazar said the information center would provide its forecasts whether it was 1,000 or 100,000 people using them.

“It really doesn’t change our mission all that much,” he said.