Avalanche Awareness

Photo: Colorado Department of Transportation

Thirty-seven people were killed by avalanches in the U.S. in the winter of 2020-2021, including 12 in Colorado.

While avalanches are a serious threat to winter backcountry travelers everywhere, they are particularly so here. In fact, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Colorado has recorded more avalanche-related deaths since 1950 than any other state. Therefore, knowing how to recognize the elements that cause avalanches is essential for remaining safe while traveling in the mountains. 

As a long spine of high inland peaks, the Colorado Rockies usually accumulate a colder, shallower snowpack than that of the mountain ranges nearer to the west coast. As a result, certain physical characteristics merge to create persistent fragile layers ripe for avalanche, once sufficient stress develops. The San Juan Mountains, for example, possess abundant steep terrain while receiving ample annual snowfall. As simple gravity increases stress, combined forces routinely elevate the risk of an avalanche.

A combination of weather, steep terrain and existing snowpack structure may give rise to avalanche danger. Weather factors typically include heavy snowfall, high winds and wildly fluctuating temperatures. Avalanche terrain is mainly determined by slope steepness and slope orientation to the wind and sun. Relevant snowpack characteristics include the formation and presence of weak layers vulnerable to increasing stress. 

As stress on a slope overcomes the strength of its snowpack, an avalanche can result. Stress can increase dramatically under the weight of new snowfall, the sudden release of a cornice (or snow overhang), or, as an individual or group of skiers, snowboarders or snowmobilers moves across unstable snow. Most often, avalanche victims trigger the slides that overtake them or other members of their group.

Travelers should move singly in avalanche terrain to reduce stress on the snowpack, while possessing the equipment and the skills necessary to successfully affect an avalanche rescue. Because a victim buried just 30 minutes stands less than a 35 percent chance of survival, time is of the essence. To aid in location and rescue efforts, each well-equipped party member should carry an electronic avalanche beacon, probe pole and lightweight shovel. In too many cases involving unintentional slides, ignorance, arrogance, fatigue or peer-group pressure can result in backcountry travelers ignoring obvious warning signs. 

Backcountry travelers caught in an avalanche may not fare well. Whether being buried alive and deprived of oxygen for several minutes or being carried over cliffs, into trees, rocks or other large objects, serious injury — or worse — can result. Therefore, an immediate rescue is essential to increasing a victim’s odds of survival. An individual’s beacon helps companions locate him or her quickly, while a probe pole and shovel allow individuals to pinpoint and uncover companions buried in the snow. Backcountry enthusiasts can purchase this equipment from various recreational retailers in Pagosa Springs. 

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides daily mountain weather and avalanche hazard forecasts available on the Web at avalanche.state.co.us. Daily forecasts begin in early November and continue through most of May. Backcountry travelers should use this information as a basis for their own risk assessment and trip planning.

Educate yourself. Seek out knowledgeable people, read books, take an established avalanche course and — most important — always pay attention to the clues nature provides, as you travel the backcountry. 

Recommended research:

Good books on avalanches are available at the library, or check information available online at avalanche.state.co.us and avalanche.org.

Also, watch The Pagosa Springs SUN and local outdoor shops for announcements about community avalanche awareness talks from the experts who monitor and forecast local avalanches for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Colorado Department of Transportation.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is a program within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Executive Director’s Office, and is a partnership between the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Transportation and the Friends of the CAIC.

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