Backcountry Guide: How to avoid ‘the perfect storm’ during Colorado’s ski season

State

An “avalanche area” sign. (File Photo)

DENVER (KDVR) — A strong warning from backcountry search and rescue experts: the ramifications could be severe this season due to this perfect storm: COVID-19 closures, ski area reservations, and inexperienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders.

Problem: Can’t get a DAY-OF reservation on a powder day
Solution: Hit the Backcountry
Danger: The Backcountry learning curve is a cliff
Complication: Search and Rescue Teams swamped

Here’s the caution: the tips have to go beyond the gear.  It’s a learning experience and mindset.  Mentality is just as important.  Preparation.

Basic Tips:

  • Get educated
  • Take avalanche classes
  • Start small
  • Learn from experienced backcountry skiers/snowboarders
  • Know your limits
  • Be conservative
  • Respect the dangers

Be Prepared:

Get a “COSAR” card ( Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card)

Why?

If a search and rescue team incurs expenses during a mission, they don’t bill it to the person they
helped. They (or the county sheriff under whom they operate) absorb that cost.
Buying a CORSAR Card helps ensure that a county sheriff and the SAR team are
financially prepared for the next mission — just as they were ready to help you because
previous people they helped had a card and the team’s expenses were reimbursed.

It is important to leave a detailed itinerary with a responsible person at home. This person should understand that it is their role to immediately report any known emergent circumstances, serious injuries or medical episodes, or an extended failure to communicate after the planned timeline of your trip.

  • Number of persons involved
  • Name, age, and gender of each person
  • Phone numbers for each person
  • Physical descriptions, including clothing and equipment
  • Nature of the emergency
  • Details and timeline from the itinerary
  • Last known location of the lost party
  • Location of the lost party’s vehicle
  • Vehicle description and license plate number
  • Any needs, including medicines or other urgent items
  • Lost party’s level of outdoor experience
  • Reporting person, if not the lost party: your name, relationship to lost party, phone number, location, and favorite color

Colorado Parks and Wildlife said these are the most important tips for surviving the outdoors:

  • Always tell someone where you are going and when you will return.
  • Always take someone with you, never go out alone.
  • Always stick to your plan, stay put if you become lost or stranded.
  • Always carry a survival kit and first aid kit and know how to use both.
  • Always dress for weather but prepare for changes.
  • Always carry rain gear, you must protect yourself from the elements.
  • Always remember that there is no shame in getting lost, the shame is in having to come out in a body bag

Avalanche Tips:

Things go wrong, and sometimes despite precautions people still get caught in avalanches when venturing into the snowy backcountry. That’s why backcountry travelers should always carry the right gear and know to use it.

The following information is from the Forest Service National Avalanche Center:

Always carry a beacon, a shovel, and a probe pole. Seriously consider wearing a helmet (nearly 30% of avalanche fatalities are caused by trauma) and wearing an Avalung (you can breathe up to one hour if you are completely buried) or Air Bag System (ABS tend to keep victims on or very near the surface).

Wear releasable binding. If your skis or snowboard stay on in an avalanche its just like jumping into a lake with them on…you are much more apt to get pulled to the bottom.

If your partner gets buried, you don’t have time to go for help. You must save your partner; if you go for help it will be too late.

  • Yell to alert your partners and other people that may be in the area. Watch the victim! Memorize the last seen point.
  • Make sure it is safe to search. Don’t become a victim yourself.
  • Designate a leader and quickly develop a search plan.
  • Look for surface clues like gloves, boots, and other equipment.
  • Conduct a beacon search. Get close and probe BEFORE you dig.

Many buried victims die of asphyxiation within 15 minutes unless they are wearing an Avalung.

Your partner’s survival is in your hands.

It is critical to attend an avalanche class to learn how to carry out a fast and effective rescue.

And then to frequently practice using your beacon and practice carrying out a rescue before you’re faced with the real thing!

Rescues can be chaotic scary affairs; it may be getting dark, it may be cold, it may be stormy.  Be prepared.  Be ready! Know what you are doing!

If you are caught…

  • Try to ski or board off the slab by maintaining momentum and angling to edge of slide.
  • Simultaneously, if you are wearing an Avalung, get it in your mouth
  • If you get knocked down and you have an Air Bag System deploy it.
  • Discard poles (never ski in the backcountry with your pole straps on).
  • Hopefully, you have releasable bindings and your skis or board come off; if they do, roll on to your back with your feet downhill. Swim hard upstream to try to get to the rear of the avalanche.
  • Dig into the bed surface to slow you down and let as much debris as possible go past.
  • Grab a tree if you can
  • FIGHT!
  • As the avalanche slows, try to thrust your hand or some part of your body above the surface and then stick a hand in front of your face to make an air space around your mouth.
  • If completely buried, try to remain calm–hopefully your partners have practiced rescue techniques and they will quickly find you.

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