Avalanche Awarness: Staying Safe While Full Sending


Pablo Flores

This couple is gearing and getting ready to decend this very technical mountain face.


An avalanche can ruin your whole day. Or kill you.

It starts with a trek up steep, rugged terrain, cutting a trail through deep packed snow. Reaching the top is a sigh of relief; however, the journey has now begun. You clip your skis on and strap yourself in for the adrenaline-packed descent that is about to come—racing down the mountain, gliding over the top the snow, surrounded by breathtaking views of crystal snow-white peaks. This is the dream for any adrenaline junkie that seeks more than your typical ski resort. Backcountry skiing is highly anticipated for many people, especially residents of the San Juan mountain range who need another outlet and relief from their very stressful year.

However, backcountry skiing is hazardous and has many risks that come with it. A backcountry skier’s worst nightmare is getting caught in an unexpected avalanche, especially if some people decide to go by themselves. Even the most experienced and well-trained backcountry skiers have been caught in life-threatening avalanches that only a few walk away from. You may think you are safe, but mother nature can switch up on you in minutes.

During the 2018-19 season, the state recorded 4,273 slides, 478 in the Vail and Summit County region, including 92 that caught people on their way down. In all, 135 individuals were caught in avalanches, a high watermark over the past decade, and eight of those people were killed, the most since the 2013-14 season. Of the seven other states that recorded an avalanche fatality last season, none had more than four. Colorado led in avalanche deaths throughout the whole United States.

One explanation for the state’s elevated avalanche danger is undoubtedly the number of recreators heading out to Colorado’s backcountry. “That makes a huge impact,” Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said. “The more people you have exposed to avalanche hazards, the more chances you have of someone getting involved in an avalanche. We have a huge winter recreation industry and culture in Colorado. We have about 27 major ski areas. We have highways that run through the mountains, many people who live in the mountains, and people who visit us to play in the mountains. So there are a lot of people trouncing around in the woods.”

This new rise in backcountry recreation culture may help us create more avalanche awareness and stay safe out on the mountain. The more people that are out doing a backcountry activity, the more awareness that is spread by the community and hopefully a safer activity.

Here are some ways you can stay safe doing what you love:

First, If you find yourself skiing in dangerous snow areas or would like to in the future, please take an avalanche safety class. To find a class near you, check out AIARE. These classes are super important as they will inform you about the specifics regarding topics on snowpack, beacons, etc. Avalanches can happen inbounds and out-of-bounds, so it is essential to know about different types of snow. While inbound avalanches tend to be more rare and small, they can still push you around and cause injury. Be sure to check the conditions on the ski area’s website to check for alerts. If you are unsure if a certain zone has a condition report, try Googling it!

If you have considered purchasing avalanche gear before, you know it’s quite expensive. But would you rather have cheap faulty equipment that would prevent you from saving someone’s life or from someone saving you? No way! Avalanche gear is tried and true to ensure as many people as possible survive avalanches.

There are three main tools that you need to buy in addition to taking an avalanche class: Beacon, Probe, and Shovel. Beacons are electronic devices that can connect to other beacons. When in ‘search mode’, the beacon will beep different tones as you approach the buried person’s beacon. Everyone you are skiing with needs a beacon, for a beacon only works if everyone has one on their person. Beacons only get you so close to the buried person, which means you will also need a probe, which will help you determine exactly where the body is. A probe is a foldable aluminum shaft, similar in construction to a tarp pole, with a metal tip on the end. Using a probe, you can poke through the fallen snow until you feel the person. The final necessary tool is a shovel, which, as you can probably guess, is used to dig the person out.

Avalanche air-bags are amazing tools that help mitigate being buried. They are either deployed by air canisters or fans. When an avalanche occurs, the user can deploy the bag at the right time, which will help them float. If they become buried by the avalanche even with the bag deployed, the bag will create a large air pocket, which will increase the amount of oxygen available for breathing, raising your chances of survival. Bags using fans are great because the bag can be deployed multiple times in a run. If a bag uses CO2, the cartridges must be replaced after the bag is deployed.

Knowing how to use these tools and taking the necessary steps such as having the knowledge and taking avalanche courses will always help just in case something goes south; however, no matter how skilled and trained you are, you may still end up in a life or death situation caused by an avalanche. It is essential to know what you are getting into and how to stay safe out in the backcountry.