The 5280 Mountain Guide

November 2011

Sliding Scale

Get the skills to anticipate Mother Nature—and to fight back when she unleashes her fury.

Conducting a companion rescue—even if your “companion” is a buried backpack—is unsettling. I’m heaving away shovelfuls of snow during a rescue drill on a backside slope at Aspen Mountain, and I can’t help but imagine a different scenario: one where we’re searching for a real person buried in a real avalanche.

My nervousness isn’t exactly unfounded. Seven people died in avalanches in Colorado during the 2010-2011 ski season. So although I generally stick to inbounds skiing, I’d enrolled in an avalanche safety course with Aspen Expeditions. The three-day class is the first in a series of three created by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). It familiarizes students with avalanche conditions and terrain, outlines the basics of snowpack science, and equips them with decision-making and rescue skills for the backcountry.

After a four-hour classroom session the night before, instructor Brit Ruegger had taken our small group “into the field” for practice with our avalanche equipment—shovels, probes, and beacons (devices that transmit and receive radio signals for search purposes). After we’ve finished our rescue simulation, we dig an avalanche pit—a chest-high box hollowed out of the snow—and Ruegger shows us how to identify the different layers of snowpack in the pit walls to assess the snow’s stability. The next day, it’s time to test our skills in the true backcountry: Green Mountain, south of Aspen. The avalanche danger is “moderate,” according to the forecast, and I’m more than a little edgy: A big storm is blowing in and the flakes are already falling.

Nonetheless, I follow the others several miles up the trail (we’d put climbing “skins” on the bottoms of our alpine touring skis for traction), discussing conditions and risks the whole way up until we find a spot to dig our pit and consider the snowpack. It’s a lot of physical exertion and mental evaluating for what will probably be one run down, and our remoteness weighs on my mind. But the first time I slice through the never-been-skied powder, I see why backcountry diehards refuse to ski at resorts. I’m so giddy with adrenaline, I almost forget about the avalanche risk—until Ruegger reminds us to “ski exactly where I ski, one at a time…. Stay in my line.” Right. We can’t afford to get careless.

Less than 24 hours later, a local skier is caught and killed in an avalanche not 30 minutes from where we’d been. It’s a tragic reminder about the awesome power of the backcountry—and the value of this course. —JD

Try It

Where: Aspen Expeditions, Aspen Highlands, Aspen expeditions.com

Cost: $315 (two evening sessions, two field days; avalanche gear included)

Overnight Idea: You’ll need to stay two nights in Aspen; try the posh, newly renovated Hotel Aspen, ask for a Jacuzzi suite or a fireplace suite overlooking Aspen Mountain, and refuel before your avy-course night session at the complimentary daily après-ski buffet by the stone hearth in the lounge.

Also Try: Silverton Avalanche School, $295 (plus $35 gear rental), avyschool.com; Alpine World Ascents, Boulder/Empire/Estes Park, $345 (gear included), alpineworldascents.com