avalanche

Courtesy of GRAND COUNTY SEARCH AND RESCUE

Rescuers work near a snowmobile of a man killed in an avalanche east of Winter Park in February.

With Colorado’s high country already starting to turn white with welcome early-season snow, it’s not too soon to start day-dreaming of winter outdoor adventures to come.

For those who venture into the state’s backcountry in the wintertime, it’s also a good time to start thinking about how to do so safely when it comes to dealing with the threat of avalanches, especially after what was a particularly deadly avalanche season last winter both in Colorado and nationally.

One way to prepare is through education, and local residents will have an opportunity to get some slide-safety schooling for free on Oct. 25 thanks to an event being offered by All-Terrain Motorsports at 637 24 1/2 Road in Grand Junction. Certified avalanche instructor Mike Duffy will be offering a one-night avalanche safety and awareness class there, compliments of All-Terrain Motorsports and Ski-Doo snowmobiles.

Snowmobilers, skiers and all other backcountry enthusiasts are invited.

“It’s definitely geared toward snowmobiling but we want to help as many more people as we can,” said James Wells, manager of All Terrain Motorsports.

Wells is suggesting but not requiring that people RSVP on All-Terrain Motorsports’ Facebook page if they plan to attend, but said there will be plenty of room for attendees. The event starts at 6 p.m. Participants should bring avalanche gear including a transceiver, shovel, probe and pack if they have them, but Wells said Duffy also will have gear people can use during the class.

Wells said All-Terrain Motorsports has offered the classes before. He said a lot of people, especially backcountry novices, don’t think much about the danger of avalanches. “It’s just definitely a good thing to create awareness because there’s a lot of people who unfortunately die every year from avalanches. I have quite a few buddies that have been caught (in avalanches), and definitely a decent number of friends of friends that have passed in avalanches.”

Spencer Logan, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said that typically only about 20% of annual avalanche deaths in the state involve motorized recreations such as snowmobilers and increasingly snowbikers. But he said that percentage can vary a lot from year to year, from 10-15% to 50% or even 100% of deaths some years.

The state on average sees six deaths each winter season from avalanches, an average that hasn’t changed much since the mid-1990s. Logan sees that as an encouraging statistic given how much Colorado’s population has grown and how much winter backcountry use has increased as well.

Unfortunately, though, the state recorded 12 avalanche fatalities during the 2020-21 winter recreation season, which tied an annual record going back to World War II, Logan said. (He said there were worse winters for avalanche deaths back in the state’s early mining years.) Two of last season’s deaths involved snowmobilers.

Nationally was the worst in 70 years for avalanche fatalities, with 37 deaths including nine that involved snowmobilers.

Logan said Duffy has been doing avalanche education for snowmobilers for quite a while, offering a lot of free education opportunities to motorized recreationists. Logan said a lot of education in the past has been aimed more towards skiers or been perceived as only pertaining to skiing.

“Reaching other people or getting out to wider audiences is a really important thing,” Logan said.

He said while fewer snowmobilers than skiers typically die in slides in Colorado, that isn’t the case everywhere. Montana has had more snowmobilers die than any other user group in recent years, Logan said. He said some of that is a result of the huge amount of terrain snowmobilers can access that skiers generally don’t in Montana, whereas in Colorado there may be less difference in the amount of accessible terrain when it comes to different user groups.

Wells said there are places winter recreationists can safely get to everywhere in the backcountry as long as they know how to use their avalanche gear, evaluate snow conditions and judge whether an area is safe for travel.

The upcoming class will help in that regard.

“People are going to learn a lot for sure,” Wells said.

Logan said last year’s high number of fatalities in Colorado and elsewhere came during a winter when the state and the West had an unusually avalanche-prone snowpack. He said Colorado had early-season snow that became a weak foundation when fairly large storms hit in late December and later in the winter.

The resulting avalanches “weren’t out of the ordinary but they were maybe more unusual than we’d seen in the last 10 years, so certainly out of a lot of people’s experiences,” Logan said.

Avalanches were running farther and spreading wider than may have been seen the last few years, he said, which resulted in people who only used recent winters to gauge avalanche danger misjudging things or lacking the experience to understand what avalanches are capable of.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center works in several ways to try to help the public stay safe in the backcountry, through means such as providing avalanche forecasts, reporting on accidents, and offering educational programs. Its website is https://avalanche.state.co.us/.