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Learning to be a safe backcountry weekend warrior

Avalanche education creates culture of awareness

“I love skiing,” Aaron Ball said in front of a large audience at the Powerhouse Science Center on Tuesday in Durango.

An instructor trainer for the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education, Ball typically teaches those who teach others how to be safe in avalanche terrain. But as a volunteer with Friends of the San Juans, a nonprofit avalanche awareness organization, he, along with an all-star list of professional educators, are sharing their knowledge. But it’s really just a beginning.

“That’s the idea,” he said. “The two hours we spend talking about avalanches does not translate into any significant education.”

Every year, about 40 people die in avalanches in U.S. mountain states, and an overwhelming amount of those fatalities are in Colorado. As popularity increases and more people flock to the backcountry on snow machines and skis, the accident reports pile up with human-triggered avalanches. In Colorado between 2005 and 2015 there were 62 deaths from avalanches, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and the highest number of those were people backcountry touring. Snowmobilers are never far behind.

Since losing their son Peter Carver, 23, to an avalanche near Silverton in 2013, the Carver family of Durango has supported Friends of the San Juans. On Tuesday, Karen Carver, Peter’s mother, pointed out that the human component is perhaps the biggest one.

“As we see what has evolved in the education part, it’s not only the snow science and the offerings that technology brings, but what we’ve been calling the human factor,” she said. “The decision making part and the group dynamics.”

Since the death of Carver and another Durango man, Joe Philpott, who also died in a slide near Estes Park in 2013, an avalanche training scholarship fund was formed and is now awarded to applicants who vow to carry the message to others. Last season, 10 individuals received scholarships.

When teacher Daisy Matthews moved to Colorado in 2005, she was romanced by the magic of the mountains while snowboarding in the backountry near Vail. But when a student was seriously injured in a avalanche, she became aware of the danger lurking beneath the surface of the snow.

“I found myself in situations that weren’t safe,” she said. “I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why I was uncomfortable.”

Moving to Durango, the Fort Lewis College math teacher heard about FOSJ and the scholarship and applied.

“Being a teacher, I feel like I try to contribute as much as I can to the community,” Matthews said.

She learned about snow, but she also learned about people.

“It opened my eyes,” she said. “Not only to the science of snow but the science of how we react to other people. I know from being a teacher how we can impact one another.”

At Wolf Creek Avalanche School with instructor Sandy Kobrock, Matthews said they kept it simple.

“Snow is going to do what snow is going to do,” she said. “We are the ones who trigger avalanches.”

Director of Friends of Berthoud Pass near Denver, Shan Sethna, also attended Tuesday night’s lecture.

“The No. 1 way to avoid being caught in an avalanche,” he said, “don’t go where they happen. The people that are in it everyday, ski patrol, search and rescue, highway workers, those guys aren’t getting caught and killed. It’s us. It’s the weekend warriors.”

According to the CAIC, since 1950 there have been 14 highway personnel fatalities related to avalanches. That number shoots to 249 for skiers, and 238 for snowmobilers. Victims are 87 percent male.

“You want to know who gets caught in avalanches,” Sethna said. “We do.”

So when FOSJ’s director John Strand saw a gap in awareness in the Durango area, he got to work.

“There was an energy to reach out,” Carver said.

Jeremy Dakan, co-owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering in Durango and sponsor of the Joe Phillpott/Peter Carver Scholarship, sells all the right stuff for the backcountry and supports FOSJ. They enjoy the buzz of gearing up for winter, but they don’t want to set someone up for disaster.

“We’ve been selling backcountry gear forever and we’ve always felt a responsibility to spread avalanche safety,” he said. “We don’t know where you’re going when you walk out that door, so we want to make sure you use it wisely.”

Ball, who also teaches swift water rescue skills for Southwest Rescue and guides for San Juan Mountain Guides, said he loves seeing the moment in his student’s eyes when they finally get it. “The spark.”

He also said safe practice creates its own backcountry community culture.

“We live in one of the most beautiful places, and people are going to travel into that terrain,” he said. “In these small communities – Durango, Pagosa, Telluride – you know people, I think FOSJ promotes the idea that we care about the people who go into the backcountry. They’re our friends, our neighbors. They’re us.”


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