Foley: Avalanche Season just a snowfall away |

Foley: Avalanche Season just a snowfall away

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue
Recent Canadian data suggests that 50 percent of buried avalanche victims die within the first 15 minutes. It also states that 90 percent will die by the 30 minute mark. Quick and efficient companion rescue is the best hope for
Image Courtesy of Greg Foley |

It’s that time of year when there is a lot of pent up passion to ski or ride as soon as the white stuff hits the ground. Skis and boards are all waxed up, snowmobiles are tuned and lots of new gear is ready to be broken in.

For mountain rescue volunteers seasonal avalanche rescue training started in October. Rescue packs are outfitted with shovels, probes, transceivers and avalanche wands. Colorado teams are especially cognizant of avalanche season since more people are killed in avalanches in Colorado than any other state – 70 since 2004. That’s an average of about six every year.

For those who enjoy skiing or riding in the backcountry the most important gear is your avalanche safety equipment. The Know Before You Go program promoted by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) stresses five steps of preparation to ensure the safest possible experience when in uncontrolled areas. The first step is


• Always carry a transceiver, probe, and shovel in the backcountry to help you find a buried partner and be found

• Always carry your gear on your body with your transceiver turned on

• Consider riding with an inflatable pack to increase your chances of staying on top of an avalanche

• Practice with your gear regularly. Seconds count and your gear only works when you can use it confidently and efficiently in bad conditions

• Carry the gear and supplies you need to survive an injury or a long evacuation in winter conditions

• Be able to communicate with your partners and rescuers

• Remember that your gear helps you have a safer and more fun day – it does not guarantee your safety

You can get set up with the basic gear (transceiver, probe and shovel) for under 400 bucks. Less than most spend on new skis or boots.

An avalanche transceiver, also called a beacon, is an electronic device that emits a silent signal that can be detected and located by another transceiver. An experienced user can zero in on a buried partner in minutes. This is extremely critical because after 15 minutes of burial the odds of survival go down fast.

Once the rescuer has pinpointed the buried person’s location with the transceiver, an avalanche probe is used to definitively locate the subject with systematic probe searching. A probe is an 8-10 foot long, collapsible metal pole that is quickly deployed.

After confirming the location with the probe, it’s time to start digging. Without a shovel moving snow efficiently is just plain impossible. Shoveling down to the subject is usually the most time consuming task in a rescue so a sturdy, ergonomic shovel is essential.

For avalanche safety it is important that every person in the party have the basic safety gear – transceiver, probe and shovel. If someone doesn’t have the gear, maybe it’s time for some peer pressure. Choose your partners wisely.

The second step in the Know Before You Go program is:


Avalanche awareness is the first step towards safety in avalanche terrain and can usually be accomplished in a couple of hours with a dedicated program. There are two free avalanche awareness programs coming up here in the Fraser Valley.

know before you go

Instructor Jamie Wolter will be presenting the Know Before You Go program at 5 p.m., Thursday, Nov 10 at the Fraser Library. This program targets teenagers and is produced without a lot of science, without the dire warnings and formulas. The video will grab your attention 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.

I believe that 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.

Friends of Berthoud Pass

A second avalanche awareness program will be presented by the Friends of Berthoud Pass at 7 p.m., Dec. 14 at the Winter Park Pub. This class is a perfect introduction for novices and a great early season refresher for more experienced travelers. The FOBP are presenting their avalanche awareness program at many other locations in the Denver/Boulder area. Information is available at

Neither 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 The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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