Much of Colorado under high avalanche danger after winter storm; tips for backcountry survival

Posted at 12:18 PM, Jan 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-05 14:34:24-05

DENVER – Much of Colorado’s high country mountain ranges are under high avalanche danger after another heavy snowstorm dumped more than a foot of fresh snow Tuesday and Wednesday.

Backcountry travel and skiing is discouraged during these high-risk times, but if you have to head out into avalanche danger zones, it’s important to be prepared with the right gear, or it could cost you your life.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center shows 28 avalanches of various sorts have occurred since Jan. 1.

Most of them have happened along U.S. Highway 550, near Gunnison, near Aspen and along Monarch Pass. Some have been naturally-caused, and others have been caused either intentionally by avalanche crews or by skiers who accidentally triggered the avalanches.

The Gunnison, Steamboat and Flat Tops, Front Range, Vail and Summit County, Northern San Juan and Southern San Juan ranges all remain under avalanche warnings through 10 a.m. Friday. The information center advises people not to travel in or below avalanche terrain during this time, and says large natural avalanches have already occurred.

The Sangre de Cristo range in southern Colorado and Sawatch and Aspen areas are all under special avalanche advisories; people are advised not to travel in the backcountry in areas that have received more than 2 feet of new snow.

Monarch Mountain and U.S. Highway 50 were both closed down Thursday for avalanche mitigation work. The highway was also closed Wednesday afternoon for similar work. The ski area is expected to re-open Friday.


People who plan on traveling in avalanche areas, especially while snowshoeing, skiing or snowboarding, should be prepared to do so.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center teaches a free avalanche awareness program, called “Know Before You Go,” which teaches people how to be safe when traveling in the backcountry. It also has a website dedicated to avalanche and backcountry awareness and safety.

Some outdoors stores, such as REI, also offer avalanche safety classes.


Also important is having the correct backcountry and avalanche gear. It can cost a pretty penny, but is essential for safety and required in most backcountry ski areas. The gear isn’t guaranteed to save your life in an avalanche, but greatly increases your chances of survival should you be caught in one.

Avalanche transceivers or beacons are a must-have, and send out electronic or GPS signals should someone get buried by an avalanche.

People should also bring collapsible snow shovels and probes in order to test the snowpack, and to find and dig out anyone who may get buried.

Using both the transceiver and snowpack testing materials often require extensive training before a person uses them in the backcountry.

Perhaps the next-most important piece of avalanche/backcountry gear you should invest in is an avalanche airbag.

The bags look like a small backpack, but contain an airbag and compressed air. If someone is caught in an avalanche, they can pull a ripcord similar to those on parachutes that will inflate the airbag in order to protect people’s heads and bodies and hopefully keep them on the upper surface of the avalanche.

Some backcountry manufacturers also make breathing packs with either snorkels or masks that can be used by people in avalanches so they don’t suffocate, which is often the cause of death for people trapped in avalanches.

There are other radio frequency boosters, snow saws and snowpack meters that can be used to scope out possible avalanche zones or boost beacons for ski patrollers to find people involved in avalanche.

Most ski areas do avalanche mitigation with cannons or other means before they open for the day. If avalanche patrols find areas that are possibly hazardous, they will typically close down those areas for the day.

People wondering about avalanche conditions in Colorado’s backcountry and ski areas should always consult the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before heading out, and should always let others know where they plan to go and when they plan to be back.


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