Rule No. 1 for enjoying and surviving backcountry skiing in Colorado: Don’t hike or ski where an avalanche might be.
If you’re depending on back-country tools like shovels and beacons to save you, your surviving friends and family will be sorely disappointed.
Bergen Tjossem and Quincy Snowdon tour in Rocky Mountain National Park in January 2017. Photo Credit: Tommy Crosby.
Every avalanche expert will tell you the best way to survive an avalanche is to not be in it when it happens. The second best way is to carry the needed survival equipment and have enough people in your ski party to dig each other out before you die. The odds, however, aren’t that good.
It’s serious stuff, but it can be serious fun.
You don’t have to know everything about avalanche science to get out there and have fun and come back, but someone you’re with should know plenty.
There are three cardinal words that every backcountry skier must permanently and frequently drill into his or her skull: Beacon, shovel and probe.
This pathetic smattering of words will be pretty much useless until you obtain those three tools — and requirements — for backcountry skiing. What about skis, you ask? Not as important as the equipment that can be used to save your life, and locate your body, in an avalanche.
“But I thought avalanches just happened in ‘Vertical Limit?’ You know, that one part right before Annie, Vaughn and McClaren fall into the crevasse?” Wrong, Copernicus. You are very wrong.
Avalanches killed 29 people in the U.S. last year, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Five of those deaths occurred in Colorado.
What’s more, the Centennial State has owned the dubious title as the state with the most avalanche fatalities in the past 65 years — and by a long shot. Between 1950 and 2016, 275 people were killed in avalanches in Colorado, which is almost double the total of the next state on the list, according to the CAIC. (That would be Alaska, with 150 deaths.)
In case it’s not clear: Avalanches are not to be messed with. And skiing is merely a temporary luxury sometimes afforded by mother nature — not a right tossed to anyone who decides to foist over several hundred dollars for equipment at the local REI.
Now, if you’re not wholly scared off and want to keep reading, here’s where the slightly less terrifying, so-called “fun” stuff is.
Skiing in the backcountry is what it’s all about: No crowds, no overpriced snacks — just sweet, sweet clam chowder powder.
To get started, you’re going to need a beacon, shovel and a probe. Oh, shoot, did I already mention that? Good. Mash those three words into your skull forever. Boulder’s Backcountry Access sells a nice introductory kit that includes the whole trio for about $230.
Some background: The beacon emits a radio signal that can ping to other nearby transceivers if you are buried in an avalanche; the probe is a long, collapsible rod that can be used to poke around a slide path while searching for a buried person; and the shovel can be used to dig that person out, as well carve out snow pits, whack snow and help perform other rudimentary tests when checking out snow pack.
After you’ve nabbed those items, you’ll need touring bindings — different from alpine bindings because they allow a skier’s heel to freely move. Craigslist can get you pair of those for about $200 — if you’re lucky.
If you’re thinking of skiing in unmitigated terrain, you should already have skis and poles, and know how to use them — well. Alpine touring boots are a much lighter alternative to their sturdier downhill counterparts, but not wholly necessary to complete a backcountry set up. That said, your quads and your piggies will likely thank you for electing the former option.
Lastly, you’ll need skins. These are those fuzzy things you see people sticking to and peeling off their sticks to get up and down the slopes. Their hair slides with the grain going forward, but rubs against it to hold you in place while trekking uphill. The mechanism is akin to that of a cat’s tongue — minus the halitosis.
Oh, you’ll want a backpack to carry all of this stuff, too.
Have you lightened your wallet and gotten all of the gear? Good, great, grand.
It’s now time for the most valuable element, that pesky item no promotion at work can net you in an afternoon: brainpower. The level-one course on decision-making in avalanche terrain from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) is obligatory for any backcountry rookie. The three-day-long course will acquaint pupils with the basics of avalanche science, safety and avoidance. Intermittently held at various locations across the Mountain West throughout the year, the classes typically cost $420. If you think that’s a lot, look up how much caskets cost and consider the difference.
Free avalanche awareness classes at retailers like REI and Wilderness Exchange in Denver are admirable introductions to backcountry principles, but they are in no way, shape or form a substitute for an AIARE course. Don’t be the chump fooled into thinking they are. Bruce Temper’s book “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” is also required reading for anyone thinking of venturing into the high country in the winter time, although it is no substitute for an expert-led class.
Now that your melon is flooded with statistics, science and scare tactics, let’s talk locations.
We’ll keep it simple with two simple edicts. Rule 1.) Don’t go wherever I’m going. Rule 2.) Stick to the resort for a while — maybe a long while. Most Colorado mountains allow people to tour up their slopes during certain hours of the day in favorable conditions. This decreases almost all avalanche risk as resorts are heavily mitigated. Plus, several local haunts have warming huts at the top that are left open 24/7 so you can warm your tootsies and slurp oat sodas even during midnight skin sessions. Of course, if there’s no beer, did you really go skiing? (Kidding. Sort of.)
Now get out there. Or don’t. On second thought, just don’t. It’s going to be a good spring. No need to ruin it with a pesky wet slab.
Just don’t bump into me on the mountain, OK?