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Reality check: avalanches are deadly

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue

In case you hadn’t heard, winter is here. In the mountain rescue community, that means ramping up for avalanche season. Seasonal avalanche rescue training started in October and rescue packs are outfitted with shovels, probes and avalanche wands. Colorado teams are especially cognizant of avalanche activity since more people are killed in avalanches in Colorado than any other state – more than 60 since 2005.

When someone has been buried in an avalanche outside a ski area, mountain rescue groups are mobilized with the hope of saving a life. If there is an avalanche fatality, it is usually the volunteer mountain rescue teams that are charged with recovering the body. In either case, the mission is often dangerous and difficult.

Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR), along with every other mountain rescue team, promotes what we call PSAR – preventative search and rescue. This season we are excited to be promoting three avalanche accident prevention programs in the Fraser Valley.

This coming Thursday, November 12, at 6 pm at the Fraser Library GCSAR, along with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), will be presenting an avalanche awareness and safety presentation that will discuss planning for backcountry travel in avalanche terrain. Trip planning is essential preventative action for all user groups including snowmobilers, skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers. The presentation will include information on how to read the CAIC avalanche and weather reports, safe travel practices, what to do when an avalanche occurs and how GCSAR responds.

The CAIC is rolling out a new avalanche awareness program targeting middle and high school students. This “early education” program is designed without a lot of science, without the dire warnings and formulas. We had a chance to preview the video portion a few weeks ago. It will grab the attention of these young people and provide an eye opener on the destructive power of avalanches tempered with advice on how to have fun in the backcountry. Parents – if your son or daughter has advanced riding skills and might use the backcountry gate at the Area or highmark with friends on Gravel Mountain you should insist that they and their friends attend “Know Before You Go” at the Fraser Library on Friday November 13 at 6 pm.

I believe that by instilling some awareness and knowledge in this teenage group will yield real dividends in a few years when these kids are twentysomethings. More than one third of fatal avalanche victims are between the ages of 20 and 29.

The third program will be presented in partnership with the Friends of Berthoud Pass (FOPB) on December 10 at the Winter Park Pub. BJ Marraccini of the FOBP says “In our presentation we talk about ‘plan for the best, be prepared for the worst’ and have two reality checks in the form of rescue scenarios which really open people’s eyes.” The FOBP are presenting their avalanche awareness program at many other locations in the Denver/Boulder area. Information is available at berthoudpass.org.

None of these programs take the place of a full-on avalanche class and the backcountry knowledge and experience required to be proficient at avalanche safety and rescue. A little knowledge goes a long way, however, when it comes to the awareness that avalanche danger is a real and present threat.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 36 years. He can be reached by email at greg.foley@grandcountysar.com. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.


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