Colorado is known around the country, and around the world, for being a winter sports playground. Those sports take place in the backcountry as well as in established resort areas, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the state also has experienced the lion’s share of serious avalanche accidents in the United States.
If you’re planning on spending time in the backcountry, consider taking a class in avalanche safety. The National Ski Patrol offers courses, and Colorado Avalanche Information Center has a calendar that lists avalanche education events where at least one CAIC staff member is teaching, or all of the instructors have been certified by the American Avalanche Association or trained by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. It also has a list of CAIC programs.
And if you’re into snowmobiles, there’s a resource just for you. The Colorado Snowmobile Association lists links to current safety classes and clinics, whether it’s for snowmobile safety specifically or avalanche safety in general.
So you’ve consulted all the available resources, and you’ve taken a safety course (or several). You’re ready to hit the backcountry with your skis, snowboard, snowmobile, snowshoes or climbing gear. The National Ski Patrol provides a variety of tips to keep in mind, with a few notable highlights:
1. Don’t travel in the backcountry alone, and make sure someone back home knows where your group has gone and when you’re planning to be back.
2. Have alternate plans/routes in mind, as conditions can change.
3. Before you go, practice searching for your companions’ avalanche transceivers until you feel confident about everyone’s ability to locate each beacon as quickly as possible.
4. Always carry avalanche equipment: avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels (in addition to basic camping gear, extra clothing, high-energy food, and plenty of water). Every member of the group needs to carry all three of these avalanche rescue items, and know how to use them.
5. Be vigilant; maintain constant awareness of your surroundings.
6. Analyze snowpack stability, and make sure to cross potential avalanche areas one at a time (there should be a minimum of 100 yards between people).
7. Don’t ever become complacent or arrogant. Avoid making assumptions, respect what you do not know and the force of nature, and always remember that staying alive is more important than trying to tame that perfect slope.
8. Do your homework; research the conditions at your favorite winter sports destination so you can be proactive in your safety. The CAIC provides some helpful resources including:
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