It could save lives
High above the Fraser River Valley amidst the alpine slopes of the Continental Divide rests one of Colorado’s most majestic and dangerous mountain playgrounds: Berthoud Pass, the gateway to Grand County.
The picturesque mountain passage sits in the cold, thin air at 11,307 feet and separates the vast high country meadows of Middle Park from the confined canyons of the I-70 corridor. Typically blessed with an abundance of deep, dry, cold-smoked Colorado powder it is a mecca of sorts for backcountry skiers and snowboarders in the state.
Every year, thousands of hearty adventurers make the long climb up U.S. Highway 40 from the valleys below to test their mettle on the, hopefully, untracked slopes. Unfortunately, all too often those who journey into the Berthoud backcountry also test fate as they go without proper equipment or the education that would allow them to make safe decisions. Berthoud Pass’ backcountry has claimed two lives in the past 20 years; both were snowboarders riding near the chutes in Hell’s Half Acre.
Last weekend, Friends of Berthoud Pass, a nonprofit entity that promotes and educates on safe public recreation on Berthoud Pass, held a pair of avalanche awareness classes on Berthoud led by volunteer members, all of whom are experienced backcountry travelers with extensive knowledge of the pass.
The on-snow avalanche classes are held every year by Friends of Berthoud Pass, sometimes referred to as FOBP, and are part of the organization’s continual efforts to educate budding backcountry skiers and riders on the very real dangers that exist on Berthoud. Officials from FOBP stress that the classes they offer are meant to serve as refreshers for the already educated or as an enticement to those considering taking formal avalanche training.
“FOBP wants to stress that avalanche education is a lifelong, ongoing process,” explained Brian Pollock, Director of Education for FOBP. “Our team is always discussing snowpack, accidents and how we can learn from them.”
Pollock noted that an AIARE Level 1 avalanche course is the “logical progression” for prospective backcountry riders after attending the FOBP on snow session.
ON THE SNOW
It was cold in Grand County on Sunday, Jan. 27 when a group made their ascent up the north side of Berthoud Pass. The sky was dark from the low cloud cover that blocked out the early morning sunshine. A modest storm system was moving slowly east across the Continental Divide, tepidly spitting snow as a bitter wind driven from the west kicked up the airy snowflakes, making visibility scarce. Explosive booms, from nearby avalanche mitigation work, echoed throughout the wind scoured mountaintops.
Several dozen skiers and splitboarders, 66 in total, milled about the Berthoud Pass parking lot as the team from FOBP finalized their preparations for the morning. The on-snow session began with a mock avalanche rescue conducted by two volunteers from FOBP. Time is a premium in avalanche rescue scenarios. According to data from the Utah Avalanche Center, 93 percent of avalanche victims can be recovered alive if they are dug out within 15 minutes. The rescuers in Sunday’s mock avalanche accomplished the task is a little over three minutes.
After reviewing avalanche rescue procedures, the class attendees were broken up into 10 separate groups. Each group included two volunteer instructors and around a half-dozen students. The instructors led each group on a skin track climb from the Berthoud Pass parking lot east up Colorado Mines Peak.
One group of students was led by two engineers from Golden, the hard charging Nolan Hurd, who averages two to three ski days on Berthoud each week, and the more easy-going Adam Pritz, a newly minted father who said he preferred to stay on the safer side of things while in the backcountry. Together the two men led a group of five along a zigzagging route of interconnected skin tracks, making an ascent to a height just below 12,000 feet. They climbed through the sometimes hip-deep powder both Hurd and Pritz took multiple opportunities to stop and review basic avalanche questions.
“What do you think the dangers are here?” Pritz would ask at times.
“Are we safe to travel here?” Hurd would say to students while pausing before making another climb.
Their questions were mostly rhetorical, as none of the four other students in the group had taken an AIARE Level 1 class. Their inquiries, rather, were meant to spark thought, to show those in attendance that avalanche awareness and safety is not a singular moment of consideration, or a decision made in the parking lot. Instead, it is a continual process when in the backcountry; a system in which every decision should and must be carefully reviewed and considered, where unknown and human factors must constantly be reassessed and basic assumptions questioned.
After spending the morning climbing to the top of what was the old Powder Line trail at Berthoud Pass Ski Area, the group made its descent to the parking lot for lunch. Instructors used the descent as an opportunity to review proper backcountry techniques with each rider descending one-at-a-time and heading for islands of safety along the way.
After lunch the group headed west, touring up into what was once known as the Pumphouse Basin on the old Chicken Out run. They spent an hour or so digging snow pits, checking out snowpack layers and conducting simple stability tests to show students how easy it can be for a significant slide to occur. With time running short, the group gathered their gear and headed higher up the mountain slope before descending down the Mainline run to watch an avalanche dog rescue demonstration from handler Rico LaRocca and his dog, Bizcut.
LaRocca and Bizcut are with Winter Park Ski Patrol and are also team members for Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, or C-RAD. They are occasionally called upon for emergency avalanche rescues. During such a call, a helicopter, typically from Summit County, will pick up LaRocca and Bizcut and haul them to the site of avalanche, depositing them on the side of the mountain. After completing his demonstration LaRocca, the classes attendees and volunteers from FOBP returned to the nearby parking lot to unwind and shoot the breeze.
The cloud cover that darkened the skies earlier in the morning had cleared but the wind was still ripping through the pass, blowing beautiful billowing spires of powder across the valley to redeposit it on the chutes just north of the parking lot; where the faint remnants of a recent avalanche could still be seen.
It was a reminder of the immense beauty and very real danger posed by Berthoud Pass.
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