Avy experts target sidecountry safety programs

A view looking down from the top of the first Steep Gully, a popular sidecountry area near A-Basin where a snowboarder died in avalanche last winter. Highway 6 is visible far below. PHOTO COURTESY CAIC.

13 people have died in Colorado sidecountry avalanches in the past 10 years

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Colorado Avalanche Information Center wants to partner with ski areas in the state to raise awareness about avalanche hazards in the sidecountry — areas close to resorts that are easily accessed via lifts but not subject to avalanche control work.

Of the 60 avalanche deaths in Colorado in the past 10 years, 13 have been in the sidecountry, according to CAIC director Ethan Greene.

Greene said it’s important to remember that, from a snow-safety perspective, there is no difference between sidecountry and backcountry. Avalanche experts and ski patrollers use the term to define areas by human behavior patterns, geographic locations and accessibility, but there is no avalanche control in those “sidecountry” areas.

Fatal and non-fatal avalanche accidents have occurred around the state, said Ben Pritchett, the CAIC’s education coordinator, mentioning the Lost Lake Chutes (Eldora), The Steep Gullies (A-Basin), Bear Creek (Telluride), Sky Chutes (Breckenridge), Five Fingers Bowl (Aspen Highlands) and the East Vail Chutes as potential danger zones. All these links lead to recent CAIC accident reports from these areas.

Peer-based education  — similar to a program used by the Friends of Berthoud Pass —  aimed at prevention could help address the issues.

“We’re brainstorming new ways to reach sidecountry users and looking for partners to join us to address some of the concerns associated with people using lifts and accessing unmitigated terrain,” Pritchett said. “This is something that matters to every ski area in the state.” Based on the statistics from recent years, it’s likely that ski patrollers at some resort in Colorado will have to deal with a serious sidecountry avalanche accident nearly each season, he added, advocating for a preventive, educational approach.

The Steep Gullies, seen here from Highway 6, are easily accessed from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. There have been several avalanche deaths in the slide-prone chutes in recent years.

The key is collaboration between the ski patrols and local skier and riders, who define the travel patterns and set the tone for sidecountry use. Locals are looked at as role models, so getting them involved in the outreach effort could be a key part of its success.

“We want to help them evaluate risks and make informed decisions … They’re willing to take a lot of risks. They’re not avoiding avalanche terrain,” Pritchett said, explaining that the educational approach has to accept the fact that people are going to go into avalanche terrain, no matter what. The key is to try and show them how they can minimize the risks with good travel techniques and other tools to avoid the biggest risks.

The Professor is another popular sidecountry ski run often accessed via car shuttles along Loveland Pass. Click on the inage for a full size view to see the ski tracks and the marks from avalanche blasting.
The Professor is another popular sidecountry ski run often accessed via car shuttles along Loveland Pass. Click on the inage for a full size view to see the ski tracks and the marks from avalanche blasting.

The idea is to develop site-specific presentations, with maps and pictures of the areas in question. For Summit County, for example, the annual avalanche talks given at the start of the season would include showing slides of known avalanche paths and describing the accidents in those areas.

Pritchett said he’s hoping to hear from the patrol directors directly to establish a contact between the CAIC and a point person at each of the resorts.

“Then we can come together and put on some free community programs. if we’re in Vail, we need Seth Morrison there, slapping his friends upside the head, telling them, ‘You need to know where to go, when to go, when not to go …’ We need buy-in from influential locals,” Pritchett said.

Pritchett and CAIC director Ethan Greene also said they’re open to other suggestions on managing the exposure to avalanche hazards in the sidecountry, mentioning ideas like backcountry gates that only open when activated by an avalanche beacons — an idea that’s been tried in other areas, but that raises potential liability issues for the Forest Service, which manages most of the public lands near ski areas.

As established by a regional Forest Service policy, the areas outside the resorts are enter-at-your-own risk zones. The agency even prefers not to use the term “backcountry gates,” as it implies some degree of control. Instead, Forest Service rangers often call them access points.

Another suggestion, already being used at Telluride and other areas, is to offer guided tours of the sidecountry areas to help introduce people to the terrain and the risks.

“We would love to hear other ideas from you,” Greene said at the end of the presentation.

The Friends of Berthoud Pass already uses a peer-based, grassroots approach, with newcomers mentored by experienced veteran volunteers, who in turn attend advanced courses taught by respected professionals with the intent that they will groom new instructors, and so on.

For more on Friend’s  of Berthoud Pass grassroots awareness program, and for a full calendar of 2010-2011 class dates, visit www.berthoudpass.org.

*CAIC director Ethan Greene sent the following information via e-mail to clarify the statistics on sidecountry avalanches and put them in a national perspective:

  1. In the last 10 years, the total number of avalanche fatalities in Colorado as a proportion of total US fatalities is about 1 in 5 (for every 5 people killed in avalanches in the US, 1 of those deaths occurs in Colorado over a 10 year period). In that period there were 280 deaths in avalanches in the US and 60 in Colorado.
  2. In the last 10 years, Colorado’s side-country fatalities as a proportion of US side-country fatalities is about 1 in 3 (for every 3 people killed in side-country avalanche accidents in the US, 1 of those occurred in Colorado over a 10 year period). In that period there were 39 people killed in “side-country” avalanche accidents in the US and 13 in Colorado.
  3. In the last 10 years, there has been an average of 1 person killed in the side-country in Colorado each year (1.3 people per year if you want to look at the purely numerical value).

3 thoughts on “Avy experts target sidecountry safety programs

  1. Basic awareness is crucial. Friends of Berthoud Pass has, for the last 7 years, offered free avalanche awareness classes to the general public in towns around Colorado. Our grassroots avalanche education program teaches people the basic skills needed to travel safely in the backcountry.

    Newcomers are mentored by veteran volunteer instructors, who in turn attend advanced courses taught by seasoned professionals. We believe this paradigm will be a model for grassroots avalanche education in the future, and we applaud Ben and Ethan for their efforts to this end.

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