Backcountry users review safety, meet avalanche rescue dogs at Beacon Bash |

Backcountry users review safety, meet avalanche rescue dogs at Beacon Bash

Participants practice using their avalanche beacons on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, during Beacon Bash at Winter Park Resort. The fourth annual event brought together backcountry skiers to practice avalanche skills at the beginning of the season.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

Ideally, a backcountry skier doesn’t have much first-hand experience conducting avalanche rescues.

While avoiding avalanches is good, it also means that skier won’t have much practice executing these lifesaving skills if the situation arises. That’s why Beacon Bash brings together backcountry users at the beginning of the season.

Saturday’s event in at Winter Park Resort’s Mary Jane parking lot brought out a couple hundred backcountry enthusiasts, along with local businesses and guides. The fourth annual event included beacon demonstrations, a visit with the Winter Park Resort Avalanche Dog team and plenty of opportunities for backcountry riders to practice their skills.

A number of the participants at Beacon Bash had never attended before. While the atmosphere was light during the bash, the seriousness of the backcountry was not lost either.

Due in part to worse-than-usual snowpack and a growing interest in backcountry recreation, last winter tied for the deadliest season since 1992 with 37 avalanche deaths nationwide. Twelve of those deaths happened in Colorado, including two in Grand County: a backcountry skier north of Berthoud Pass and a snowmobiler at Pumphouse Lake, southwest of Rollins Pass.

Justin Ibarra, operations manager for Colorado Adventure Guides, simulated what to do if a single partner gets buried in an avalanche below the rescuer. He walked through the specific steps one would go through during an avalanche rescue, emphasizing safety and best practices.

“It takes practice — not just one time at the beginning of the season at the Beacon Bash event,” Ibarra said. “Hopefully you guys are doing it throughout the season. It’s a perishable skill … If you don’t use it, you lose it. Hopefully, this isn’t a skill you are using (on the mountain).”

There was also a multi-person burial avalanche rescue demonstration, an event for folks to meet new backcountry partners, and buried beacons for participants to practice locating. The highlight of the day, however, may have been the demonstrations by Biskit, Gravy, Emma and Charlotte — the stars of the Winter Park Resort Avalanche Dog Team.

Charlotte, who’s been Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment certified for many years, is a border collie and the veteran of the team. Gravy, another collie at just over a year old, is working on getting his certification, while Emma was certified last year. As far as her team can tell, she might be the only Doberman to be C-RAD certified.

The most vocal of the group was Biskit, another border collie with C-RAD certification.

“A good animated runaway is very exciting to them,” explained Rico LaRocca, Biskit’s handler, over the dog’s enthusiastic barking.

Biskit eagerly chased down the rope for the demonstration and got to enjoy an energetic round of tug-of-war for her efforts. Gravy also showed off his skills, finding a hidden “victim” in the trees.

By rewarding the avalanche dogs for finding humans out of sight, the team trains the dogs to find buried skiers. Ideally, though, skiers have a beacon and don’t need an avalanche dog rescue.

While the dog team works for the resort, they also provide out-of-bounds rescues when needed to a large part of northern Colorado. The group is a nonprofit, promoting and supporting avalanche awareness and education, public safety regarding avalanche terrain, and professional training.

Along with the demonstrations, backcountry enthusiasts were encouraged to sign up for American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education avalanche courses, first aid classes and other resources to promote safety and preparedness on the mountains.

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