Backcountry basics: Dangerous powder |

Backcountry basics: Dangerous powder

A backcountry skier readies equipment before heading up the slope of Colorado Mines Peak.
Lance Maggart / Sky-Hi News |

Middle Park’s majestic mountains rise from river valleys far below like giant sentinels of stone and ice and while the towering spires and pine filled pitches of the high Rockies evoke a keen sense of wonder a deadly danger also lurks there, hidden beneath the seemingly placid snowy slopes.

Last Friday morning a pair of backcountry skiers were grabbing turns on the Second Creek Headwall on Berthoud Pass when they discovered just how dangerous the high country could be after kicking off an avalanche. Luckily neither skier was caught in the mass of snow that went careening down the mountainside but the incident illustrates the immense dangers of our popular off-piste ski areas and the warning signs that even experienced powder hounds find all to easy to ignore.

“The avalanche was skier triggered,” one of the skiers wrote in a report to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an entity that provides avalanche forecasts for the state. “The whole cornice/wind slab failed.”

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) was forecasting moderate avalanche danger in the area on Friday. Despite warnings though the duo headed into a danger zone and quickly discovered why it is important to heed the advice of the professionals at the CAIC.

“We human factored ourselves,” the skier wrote in the report. “The scarcity of the snow made us both disregard the obvious warning signs of the forecast, the cornice, the wind slab, and the slope angle.”

It was the first Berthoud Pass avalanche the CAIC has recorded this season, but odds are it will not be the last. As the powder starts piling up this winter more adventurous souls will ascend Highway 40 to hike the still defined trails of the long shuttered ski area. But as the number of backcountry skiers increases so does the likelihood that deadly avalanches will become more common.

Colorado leads the nation in avalanche deaths since 1950 with 275. That is nearly double the next closest state, Alaska, which has seen 150 avalanche deaths over that same period. Colorado’s comparatively light snowpack often combines with a dangerous mix of weather factors to produce some of the deadliest avalanche conditions in North America.

Unfortunately Berthoud Pass is a relatively short drive for most of the I-25 corridor. Couple that with the short hike needed to reach the nearby alpine terrain and the allure of the Berthoud backcountry is easy to understand.

This winter, as the ski season gets fully underway and the avalanche danger grows, we encourage you to follow the advice of the CAIC and Know Before You Go. Know Before You Go is an avalanche safety program for skiers and boarders that stresses preparation before heading into the backcountry. One of the five steps of the program is called “Get the Training”, in reference to avalanche courses.

Over the last weekend I attended a level 1 avalanche course in Estes Park put on by Colorado Mountain School, which I will cover in a series of follow-up articles. This series is not meant to be an avalanche safety guide nor is it meant to provide basic information for those looking to enter the backcountry. Instead, this series is meant to show the complexity of avalanche science and to highlight the importance of receiving formal avalanche education from sources like Colorado Mountain School. In essence we hope to scare you enough to either sign up for an avalanche course, or to avoid the backcountry altogether.

The life you save may be your own.

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