Mountain Rescue | Avalanche danger: Know before you go
It’s been a week that feels like winter here in Grand County — finally! The trailheads are full as both tourists and locals head up Berthoud Pass for backcountry skiing and riding.
Earlier this week, two Grand County Search and Rescue team members participated in an AIARE 1 avalanche education course at Jones Pass, taught by Bondi Outdoor Leadership of Golden. Janel Jordy and Jeremy Reyes both received partial scholarships for the training course from the George Dirth Memorial AIARE Scholarship Fund.
The scholarship fund was established to honor George Dirth (1986-2013) who was killed in an avalanche while split-boarding on Parkview Mountain in Grand County. Lisa Dirth, George’s mother, manages the scholarship fund and hopes to continue to be able to offer these scholarships through tax deductible donations to this fund through AIARE (a non-profit organization). She wants to see the avalanche fatality rate in Colorado drop down to zero.
Although George was trained in avalanche safety and awareness, out on a low-risk day and had checked the conditions, his group still triggered an avalanche that resulted in George’s death. Dirth urges all backcountry skiers to think about those you would be leaving behind. “You need to think beyond the immediate…beyond how great that line looks right now…think about your loved ones and how they’ll feel if you don’t come home tonight.”
GCSAR veteran Greg Foley is appreciative of both the scholarship fund and AIARE.
“Last season, there was only one death in Colorado,” he said. “Why is this? It’s a debatable question, but education courses like AAIRE 1 are likely a factor.” The scholarship fund can’t continue to operate without support from the Grand County community. They accept online donations, and corporate sponsors are recognized with a logo on their website.
AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) offers standardized avalanche curriculum. The Level 1 course covers decision making in avalanche terrain and is the first step toward additional professional certifications.
Jordy says she’s always been intrigued by the science behind avalanches. “They were always such an unknown to me that I have always wanted to learn more. My long term goal is to become an avy instructor and teach courses locally.”
All GCSAR team members are trained in avalanche awareness, rescue skills and mission procedures; and GCSAR winter trainings are all about practicing for beacon searches, probing, shoveling, team communications — at a lightning fast pace. The most important element for a successful avalanche rescue is speed.
GCSAR has been called twice for potential avalanche missions recently. On Feb. 11, a skier unintentionally triggered an avalanche at The Fingers area of Berthoud Pass. He was caught up and carried to the bottom of the path, losing his equipment along the way. Fortunately, he was able to self-extricate and make it out to the road. On Feb. 20, the team responded to assist Alpine Rescue Team of Evergreen search for a lost skier in the Jones Pass area.
Training courses like the AIARE Level 1 allow GCSAR team members to gain experience in identifying avalanche terrain and planning for safe travel across it. Although the team cannot attempt rescues in unsafe conditions, Grand County is full of steep terrain that can pose avalanche risk based on snow and weather conditions. The first job of the GCSAR Site Lead during an avalanche mission is to ensure the safety of the team. This requires the type of decision making framework that is taught in the AIARE course. In addition, students are required to demonstrate effective companion rescue skills to earn the certification.
Overall, the AIARE Level 1 training is available to anyone who recreates in the backcountry. You don’t need to be a professional or first responder to learn from the course.
Jordy said, “The key takeaway for me has been that terrain selection is the most important piece of the puzzle. It is the one aspect that we can control when we travel in the backcountry. Even when GCSAR enters the field [for a rescue mission] in avalanche terrain — while we can’t control the location we will be sent to, we can minimize risk by making smart travel decisions.”
Know before you go: Be sure to check for up to date avalanche information online at http://avalanche.state.co.us/about-us/.
Brenda Reyes has been a member of Grand County Search and Rescue since moving to Fraser in 2015. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.
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