Education and Equipment: What you need to survive an avalanche


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Just last week, five people in four different states were killed by avalanches. Two of those were right here in Colorado.

On Thursday, a snowmobiler was buried west of Crested Butte, and Saturday, the body of a climber was recovered from avalanche debris on St. Mary’s glacier.

Now the accidents have some people thinking more about outdoor sports safety, especially in the high country.

Right now most of the area is under a moderate risk level for an avalanche, but experts say they’re unpredictable.

Lately, outdoorsmen across the country have been accidentally triggering them, so it’s important to always be prepared.

“Whenever snow has entered the mountains there’s always a chance of avalanche,” Mountain Chalet sporting goods store co-owner Jim Smith said.

At Mountain Chalet, outdoorsmen and women can find several tools to better protect themselves from an avalanche, but Smith said education is more important than equipment.

“There’s an opportunity to take a level one avalanche course, and that will actually teach you how to study snow, study terrain, use safety equipment,” he said.

But before you head into the mountains, Smith said you should be mindful of the weather.

“Temperature, snow, wind direction, all those things play a factor in trying to avoid any potential avalanche,” Smith said.

And he said you should never go out on your own, so find a friend and always pack your safety tools.

“Simple tools are a shovel to be able to dig somebody out, a probe to be able to find that person who’s buried in the avalanche, and the beacon which is a radio receiver and transmitter that allows you to find that person,” Smith said.

And if you’ve got the money, there are more advanced options like a backpack that will inflate an airbag to keep you above the snow and debris.

Smith said if someone does get buried, there’s no time to waste.

He said they’ll only have about 15 minutes of air, if that, and they likely won’t be able to get out on their own.

“Once [the snow] finally stops, it actually sets up just like concrete, and if you’re caught in it, you have very little to almost no movement,” Smith said. “Don’t take it lightly. As soon as you’re in the backcountry and you’re in snow, you need to be aware of avalanche danger at all times.”

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center said in the 2014-2015 snow season, 12 people were caught and three were killed by avalanches in the state.

So far this season, eight people have already been buried by them.

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