Backcountry danger

Durango Herald file photo

Taking an avalanche-safety class is one way to learn valuable lessons about snowpack in the backcountry. This class was given last year by Southwest Adventure Guides, one of several local entities that teach avalanche safety.

Experience is the best teacher. But even experienced people make mistakes. When it comes to backcountry skiing, a wrong judgment can be disastrous.

And when you're talking about winter backcountry adventure in Colorado, that line between good and poor choices has a wide swath of gray in it. On one slope a decision can be perfectly fine; swing around to a slightly different aspect on a slightly steeper slope, and that decision may not be so fine.

Two Durango-raised young men died this past winter from avalanches in the backcountry. Neither was taking ridiculous chances. They were judging conditions and taking steps they assumed would create an adequate web of safety.

Yet Peter Carver, 23, and Joe Philpott, 26, both were tragically killed by snowslides.

Will this happen again? Probably. Backcountry skiing in the San Juan Mountains, at times, has an element of playing with dynamite. One wrong move can bring a calamitous explosion.

Still, those involved in studying and teaching avalanche safety keep up the good fight. They believe the danger of playing with the San Juans' white dynamite can be kept to a minimum. But people, particularly the younger crowd searching for an adrenaline rush, may inadvertently be courting danger.

“We've all been there,” emphasizes Leo Lloyd, a longtime backcountry skier, nationally renowned rope-rescue expert and paramedic with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. Nearly 30 years ago, he was once partially buried by a slide on Snowdon Peak. He's the first to admit he made poor choices that day and was lucky to survive.

As an instructor with the Silverton Avalanche School, he tries to create a model for good decision-making.

“The thing we can improve on is the mutual responsibility we have to each other as a team on a given day,” Lloyd says.

An acceptable level of risk is different for everyone. The key is to mitigate the risk to an acceptable level for everyone in the party, he says. Team dynamics are important. Although there is usually a leader, there should be consensus.

One good rule at the trailhead is to check everyone's equipment – avalanche beacons, probe poles, shovels. And, more important, Lloyd says, before leaving town the team should formulate a plan for the day.

Then, once you're skiing, you should constantly evaluate the terrain.

“Of all the complex variables that you are confronted with, including the snowpack, weather, route-finding and human factors in decision-making, the one constant you do have control over is choosing appropriate terrain for the conditions,” Lloyd says.

And, in steeper terrain, evaluate not only the possibility of an avalanche, but also the consequences.

“What would happen to me – or my team – if this slope did slide?”

For backcountry skiers, the last two winters have been very challenging. The snowpack has been light, and, in general, that means that weaker layers tend to develop. When a storm dumps on that weak layer, the new snow can use the old as a slide track – picture a sheet of ice sliding downhill on marbles.

Jim Donovan, director of the renowned Silverton Avalanche School for the last seven years, says it's easy to get lulled into thinking conditions are not dangerous.

You take a few runs, dig a few snowpits and don't see any danger signs. Then you think: “We can ski something a little steeper now” at a different aspect.

At that point, you should throw all your previous data out the window and completely re-evaluate the slope, Lloyd and Donovan say.

Donovan pointed out that backcountry skiing is the fastest-growing segment of the industry right now. Magazines, movies and videos glamorize extreme skiing. Also, people get used to skiing steep slopes at areas such as Telluride and Silverton Mountain. All those dynamics add up to potential trouble.

“They want to have that awesome, fun experience,” Donovan says. “More people are putting themselves at higher risk than they even necessarily realize.

“(Avalanche school instructors) always tell people that you want to go back and ski tomorrow. You want to go back next year. It's not like you have to throw everything at this run.

“It's no big deal to ski back around the ridge and ski a low-angle slope.”

There are methods of mitigating disasters when they occur. Skiers and snowboarders can travel one at a time, either when crossing a slope or skiing it. They can wear avalanche beacons which allow searchers to find them if they're buried. They can even wear devices that instantly inflate at the pull of a cord and allow wearers to basically ride out an avalanche.

Those methods don't always help, Lloyd says. “We can't use that to trump the data we see that day.”

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center gives daily reports, made by pros who assess dangers every day. Out in the field, you can dig a snowpit and analyze potential weak layers.

But sometimes – even if you're prepared, even if you think you've analyzed a slope and feel it's not risky – bad stuff still happens, as it did to the two local men.

And from a rescuer's perspective, sometimes good stuff happens, despite all odds. Jackson County Search and Rescue arrived at the site where Joe Philpott died in northern Colorado on March 2 to dig out a second body. It had been about three hours since the slide occurred.

This is from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's incident report:

“(Rescuers) saw the tips of his boots sticking out of the snow. They began to dig out Skier 1, believing he was also deceased given the time elapsed since the avalanche. ... When they got to Skier 1's waist they heard groaning from underneath the snowpack. At this point they realized they had a live victim.”

Like anything in life, backcountry skiing has an element of luck.

But ask a pro: Experience, preparation and good decisions trump luck, or the need for such, any day. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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