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Avalanche ignorance rated extreme

Janet Urquhart

I made the mistake of taking Mountain Rescue Aspen’s avalanche training workshop last weekend. Now, I’m afraid of my own back yard.I’m pretty sure I’ve got an unstable snowpack on top of my shed, and I’ve been eyeing the slope of South Aspen Street suspiciously. I think it could run.According to the experts, avalanche danger may exist just about any time, anywhere in our environs. According to the stats and facts tossed around last weekend, people have died during every month of the year in avalanches, which pretty much deflates my resolve to stay inside until July.I did pick up some useful bits advice though, like, if I have a metal shovel and my companion on a backcountry excursion has a plastic one, I should offer to trade shovels at the trailhead. That way, if I get buried, my rescuer won’t be trying to dig me out with a worthless piece of crap.Likewise, if anyone traveling with me has an actual, official avalanche probe, they might want to switch it with my ski poles, which supposedly double as a probe, once you figure out how to unscrew the pieces and reassemble them as one long stick. The spring thaw will reveal the corpse before anyone figures out how to use my poles as a probe.Unless, of course, I drop $300 or so on a beacon, which transmits a radio signal that basically says, “the body’s over here, the body’s over here.”The ultimate travesty, I think, is wearing a beacon that ultimately leads people to your dead body. It’s like a life insurance policy – somebody else benefits at your expense.Still, the beacon method works rather impressively, I must admit after using one for the first time. This is, of course, provided that a backcountry party has actually managed to avoid the pitfalls of Murphy’s Law No. 3. This states that, invariably, the individual buried in a slide will either not be equipped with a beacon, or will be wearing the only one.Murphy’s Law No. 4, by the way, states that someone in the party will forget to switch their beacon from transmit to search, and the survivors will all spend their time inadvertently pinpointing the location of the guy standing on the sidelines trying to fashion his ski poles into a probe.Yes, if the backcountry is fraught with danger, then so is depending on the half-wits that are likely to be among anyone’s circle of friends (count me among them).When one instructor asked our group what we should do if we spot a stray glove in a field of avalanche debris, we all regurgitated what we’d read and concluded we should leave it exactly where it lay as a clue to the victim’s whereabouts. Actually, he advised, first we should pick it up and see if it’s attached to a hand.At the other end of the scale was the slide we were shown of an entire body protruding from the snow, except for the individual’s buried head. He was, we were informed, using his cranial penatrometer to assess the snowpack. It’s not the recommended method.Rather, you’re supposed to dig a snow pit and perform a variety of assessments. And I plan to – about every 30 yards or so.Janet Urquhart is lucky to be alive, for all she knows. Her e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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