Avalanche awareness key to safe backcountry travel

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Photo courtesy Mark Mueller An avalanche takes place in the San Juan Mountains. During a recent lecture at the Ruby Sisson Memorial Library, Mark Mueller, avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Colorado Department of Transportation, presented avalanche information and safety tips
Photo courtesy Mark Mueller
An avalanche takes place in the San Juan Mountains. During a recent lecture at the Ruby Sisson Memorial Library, Mark Mueller, avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Colorado Department of Transportation, presented avalanche information and safety tips

An avalanche can be one of the most violent natural events and the San Juan Mountains are home to notorious terrain.

Mark Mueller, avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and the Colorado Department of Transportation, held an Avalanche Awareness lecture at the Ruby Sisson Memorial Library on Dec. 4.

The lecture was an overview of basic avalanche awareness, forecasting, safe travel and self-rescue. The meeting served as introduction for novices and a refresher for more experienced backcountry travelers.

The following information is taken from that lecture.

At the root of safe backcountry travel, be it skis, a split board, Nordic skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles, lies the human element.

Egos, emotions and fatigue, as well as group dynamics and social factors, can cloud objective decision-making. Safety entails continually evaluating the snow and weather as well as group members.

Mueller explained that terrain selection is vital to managing avalanche danger in the backcountry. The factors that contribute to an avalanche apply to all mountains, be it the Rockies, Pacific Northwest, the Alps or in Japan.

These contributors include slope steepness, orientation to the sun, wind and temperature.

The snowpack is an evolving entity, akin to a living organism, and subject to these elements. Variations in the snow may be present on different aspects within the same mountain range and vary throughout the day.

The low latitude and high elevation found in the San Juans directly impacts the snowpack structure. The area of Wolf Creek Pass sits on the southern side of the range at a corner that tends to funnel storms, creating the unique conditions in our local mountains.

The CAIC website reports that during the 2013-2014 winter, there were 35 avalanche fatalities in the United States. These numbers have been trending upward since the 1970s. Colorado leads all other states in fatalities by nearly 50 percent.

Mueller emphasized that this information is not meant to deter backcountry travel, but to promote proper training. Obtaining the proper instruction, being prepared with a minimum of a beacon, probe and shovel, and knowing how to use them is a starting point.

John Strand, the executive director for Friends of the San Juans (FOSJ) was also present. Strand explained FOSJ is “a grassroots collective of backcountry enthusiasts committed to providing avalanche awareness and education for winter backcountry users in the San Juan Mountains.”

The CAIC website is one of several that offers extensive forecasts and reports on avalanche information across the state, and other resources exist locally, such as avalanche schools, to help make winter backcountry travel safer.

phil@pagosasun.com