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Colorado’s avalanche safety program going strong at 40

Annual workshop highlights history of avalanche education, outreach and warnings, along with updates on weather and technical info

Colorado skiers and avalanche experts are revving up for the season, and the annual snow and avalanche workshop is always a big part of the preparation.

Avalanche deaths by state, 1950-2011. Graph courtesy CAIC.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Avalanches were a serious threat in Colorado’s mountains long before people started cruising through powder on skis and snowboards. Early pioneers, miners and railroaders all faced the White Death on a regular basis way more than 100 years ago, and during the state’s mining era, entire towns were wiped out by devastating slides.

But 40 years ago, snow experts started providing formal, science-based avalanche bulletins to the public with the formation of the Colorado Avalanche Warning Center. It was the birth of the modern avalanche safety program in the state and the precursor of today’s Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which will kick off the 40th year of forecasting with an all-start lineup at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop.

The one-day professional development event is aimed at  snow and avalanche professionals, including ski patrollers and backcountry guides, but is also of interest to the wider backcountry community, with talks on some of the latest science and the traditional ski season weather outlook.

This year’s CSAW is October 19 at the National Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville, Colorado. In addition to the CAIC, the meeting is co-sponsored by the Friends of the CAIC and The Summit Foundation.

Pre-registration for the workshop is open online at the CAIC website. Advance registration, available through Oct. 15, is $25, but it will cost you $40 if you wait to pay on the day of the workshop at the door.

Colorado’s avalanche forecasting program is the oldest in North America, and possibly the oldest anywhere outside of Europe, said CAIC director Ethan Greene. To explore the roots of the program, the workshop will include a talk by Art Judson, considered one of the “godfathers” of avalanche forecasting in the state. Judson will describe the early days, and former CAIC forecaster Nick Logan will follow up with a talk about the more recent years of the program.

Staying with the historical theme, Ray Mumford will discuss the state’s highway avalanche safety program, and Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken will give a talk on 40 years of snowfall stats.

Technical talks include information on some of the latest Avalauncher ammunition, as well as new research on the effects of explosives on different types of snow.

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Avalanche pros pow-wow at Leadville workshop

A huge turnout at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop in Leadville.

Communication, organization the key to successful rescues; smart phone technology helping pinpoint victims in some recent missions

By Bob Berwyn

LEADVILLE — Good organization and communication are the keys to successful avalanche rescues, experts said Friday morning during the first few presentations at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, discussing a couple of recent missions as case studies.

Summit County search and rescue veterans Dan Burnett and Aaron Parment said a series of linked decisions last May during a tricky rescue on Peak One, high above Frisco, enabled the rescue teams to move an injured snowboarder to a spot where a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter could ultimate evacuate him just before darkness.

Even though it was too windy earlier in the day for a helicopter rescue, mission coordinators stayed in touch with the choppers. When the wind died right around sunset, all the pieces were in place for a quick airlift, Burnett said.

The avalanche happened about three miles into the backcountry, and the rescue teams had to carefully evaluate the spring snow conditions to decide how best to reach the snowboarder, who suffered an open tib-fib fracture in the snow slide. In spring weather, the snow often can’t support the weight of snowmobiles, but quick temperature measurements near the staging area helped the teams decide that they could advance at least part way up the mountain with the help of the snowmobiles. Continue reading

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