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Ski season is winding down—at the resorts. Beyond the ropes, it’s just getting started. Plenty of snowfall this winter—142 percent of the median, as of March 23—means backcountry skiing season should be long and fruitful. It can also be dangerous; seven accidents have already resulted in nine fatalities in Colorado this season.
Still, mitigating the Centennial State’s notoriously dangerous snowpack is possible with the right know-how and risk tolerance. To get the lowdown on the best practices for backcountry skiing, splitboarding, and snowshoeing, we sat down with Colorado Adventure Guides’ operations manager, lead guide, and AIARE course leader Justin Ibarra. Ibarra, a longtime backcountry splitboarder who’s been guiding for 14 years, shares his best tips for getting out, staying safe, and having fun in Colorado’s spring playgrounds.
5280: Why is Colorado’s snowpack so prone to avalanches?
Justin Ibarra: People come from all over the world to study the snowpack in Colorado, which is one of the most complex in the entire world. Several factors contribute, but in simplest terms: It’s because we harbor a “continental” snowpack. That means the mountain snowpack consists of different layers of snow, which are typically categorized as strong (cohesive units often called “slabs”) or weak (unconsolidated snow with a sugar-like consistency).
With a continental snowpack, you are likely to see variable layering throughout most of the winter season. These layers and how they interact with each other are the source of our unstable snow, creating avalanche-prone slopes. Weather and snowpack depths are main players in the formation of these layers. In Colorado, we have a lot of wind, cold temperatures, and a shallow snowpack—all of which are conducive to creating variable layering throughout the snowpack. This is ultimately the source of our complex snowpack.
Who needs to worry about avalanches?
Anybody who travels into a mountain environment on snow—whether you’re on skis, snowshoes, or a sled, or even just out for a hike—should be aware of the potential hazards. Avalanche fatalities happen every year to unexpected user groups. Much like understanding the importance of riptides in the ocean, or currents in a river, backcountry travelers who recreate in snow should have a basic understanding of how and when avalanches can occur. In doing so, they will be able to better acknowledge these potential risks and ultimately understand how to avoid them.
There are many free avalanche awareness clinics and seminars offered these days and all winter backcountry users are highly encouraged to attend.
The easiest way to avoid avalanches is to stay inside, but that’s not very fun. What are some tips for folks who want to get out there safely and responsibly?
First off, I would recommend getting the proper training by taking a recreational avalanche course or by going out with other users who have been trained and that you trust. Then, I would reiterate that terrain choice is hazard management. In order to have an avalanche, you need three ingredients: unstable snow, a trigger, and to be in terrain that can avalanche. So, while we might have unstable layering within our snowpack, and you as a trigger, the one thing that we can control is the terrain that we go into or avoid. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. So if we are conscious of the terrain that we are traveling through or under—and have an understanding of where potential hazards are in the field—we can better mitigate the risk of triggering avalanches.
We know you should always carry an avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel when traveling in avalanche terrain. Is there additional gear that you think is important to have?
Other considerations would be group gear, such as a first-aid kit, repair kit, an emergency sled [like a rescue toboggan] or bivy. You should also carry an emergency kit with a headlamp and extra snacks, navigational tools, and communication devices. If you’re traveling outside of cell service, then some sort of personal locator beacon, such as a SPOT or InReach, can be incredibly helpful in an emergency. I am personally a huge proponent of radios for each group member for group communication. Teamwork and communication in the backcountry are essential.
Who should take a Level 1 avalanche education course?
Anybody who plans to recreate in or near avalanche terrain should consider investing in avalanche education. A Level 1 course will help give you a solid foundation and baseline understanding of how the snowpack forms and changes, how avalanches occur, how to recognize avalanche terrain, and how to execute an avalanche rescue.
What about a Level 2?
Typically, we recommend taking a Level 2 about a season or so after taking a Level 1. Once you have some practical experience applying all of the tools you learn in a Level 1, you can sign up for a Level 2, where students learn more leadership skills [for affecting decision-making outcomes on group trips] and elements of group travel. A Level 2 course also dives into the complexity of snowpack formation and change, and shows how to better evaluate terrain and consequence. The ultimate goal is to better manage risk as a group.
We teach students how to close gaps of uncertainty and introduce new and unfamiliar situations such as snowpack, terrain, or the group. We also introduce a basic forecasting process students can use to supplement their observations of the current state of the snowpack with the local avalanche bulletin.
Colorado Adventure Guides is a four-season adventure and education guide service based in Silverthorne. It has operated for more than 20 years and hold permits in multiple U.S. Forest Service and BLM zones in and around the Dillon Ranger District. If you’re interested in taking an avalanche safety course with Colorado Adventure Guides, check out the offerings here.