On March 31 last year, “riders 2 and 3,” as they’re referred to in the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) accident report, watched a rush of snow sweep their friend (“rider 1”) down the northeast face of Telescope Mountain outside Rico, Colorado. At that moment, they weren’t sure if their friend was safe, buried under a huge pile of snow, or worst of all: dead.
Rider 1, on the other hand, found himself on top of the powder that rushed him down the mountainside, but he had a broken leg. He didn’t know if his ski partners had also been in the slide. “He stood up, worried his friends were caught. He took about 10 steps before the pain became unbearable,” reads the CAIC report, which keeps the identities of the avalanche victims confidential.
Thankfully, like a growing number of backcountry skiers in the Telluride area, each member of the group was carrying a two-way radio, which they used to quickly inform each other of their status. Riders 2 and 3 were worried about causing another slide if they skied down to rider 1. The knowledge that the clock wasn’t ticking to dig their friend out allowed them to take a slower, safer route down.
After reaching rider 1 and bundling him in jackets, rider 3 decided to head out looking for help. At the same time, riders 1 and 2 were able to pull out one of the same radios they used earlier, tune into a common frequency used at Telluride Ski Resort about 15 miles away, and get in touch with someone who alerted the local sheriff’s office to their circumstances. Just hours later, rider 1 was on a helicopter bound for a Durango hospital.
Similar situations, where two-way radios helped prevent further tragedy for backcountry skiers, have occurred more than a few times in the Telluride region during the last few years, according to Matt Steen, the snow safety director for local heliski outfit Helitrax. That’s because outfitters and other skiing-related organizations throughout the area have encouraged those looking to catch turns in remote locales to carry such equipment. Common radio frequencies have also been created for people to communicate about conditions and moments of crisis. Amidst an uptick in avalanche-related deaths and accidents (at least 19 skiers and riders have died in avalanches across the United States this winter, including 11 known deaths in Colorado, up from 11 total last year), that system has also set a national standard for how radios can be used to keep backcountry skiers and riders safer.
Steen helped create a pilot program for the current system in the winter of 2014-’15. He realized the traditional method of backcountry communication—shouts and waves from a distance, or even worse: “I’m going to ski this, I’m going to disappear over that, count to 20 and then ski”—is needlessly unreliable. “It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “Why not just invest a little bit of money and use the English language?” He figured that, just like first-aid kits, maps, and avalanche beacons, the radios could also be a critical piece of avalanche equipment for backcountry enthusiasts.
But radios alone don’t solve all communication problems. That’s why groups in Telluride also started using a standardized set of radio frequencies. When backcountry users head into remote locales near the town, they can tune their radios to one of a handful of different channels, one for each of the various skiing zones in the general area.
The idea is that by allowing individuals—either within a group or across multiple groups in one zone—to communicate with each other, you’re encouraging a free flow of information, including updates on conditions, avalanche red flags, and other critical pieces of information. It also allows search and rescue to be just a radio call away. (Steen recommends still taking all the other standard safety precautions, including carrying necessary equipment like beacons and shovels.)
“The way I’d like it to be used is for calling out your group before you ski some avalanche path,” he says. “You’re announcing that you’re going to ski this thing and we want to make sure we’re not skiing on top of someone and exposing only one person at a time.”
The system is now popular enough in Telluride that Steen thinks the vast majority of backcountry users in popular zones around town are carrying radios and tuning in. With help from the Peter Inglis Avalanche Education Fund, the Telluride Mountain Club even rents out six radios—for free—from Jagged Edge Mountain Gear downtown.
Recently, more areas throughout the country have followed in Telluride’s tracks. The Utah Avalanche Center has organized a similar set of common-use radio frequencies for the backcountry zones outside Salt Lake City, as has the Northwest Avalanche Center for busy Snoqualmie Pass, east of Seattle.
For backcountry skiers and riders in areas where standardized radio frequencies haven’t become the norm yet, Steen thinks radios are still an important safety tool for communicating within your group. “You can navigate rough scenarios a whole lot easier with better communication,” he says. But he also recommends chatting with others at trailheads and parking lots to see what channel they’ll be on and even coordinating, just in case.
Without being able to talk to others, Steen says, “you’re just looking down a slope and hoping no one is standing at the end of the barrel.”