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Season shows more potential for Colorado avalanches

5:29 PM, Jan 8, 2013   |    comments
While Colorado's backcountry powder can be thrilling, it also can be deadly. Nationally, more than 100 snowmobilers have been killed by avalanches the past decade, more than any other activity group. January and February are the deadliest months. / Getty Images
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Ethan Greene, a Fort Collins resident and director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said weak early-season snowpack, coupled with new, fresh, heavy snow, makes for an avalanche recipe.

An average of 25 people die in avalanches in the U.S. every year. Colorado's first avalanche death of the season occurred Dec. 30 when an on-duty ski patrol member died in an avalanche in the Snowmass ski area.

Greene said being prepared for avalanches before recreating in the backcountry is the No. 1 rule to avoid becoming an avalanche statistic. Here are 10 questions for Greene concerning the 2013 avalanche season.

Question: How do the snow conditions so far this season compare to last season's?

Answer: Weak snow formed on the ground in November. All through December, we built slabs on top of that, so we have some fairly hard, strong snow on top of very weak snow all around the state.

This is similar to last year. The problem is when we get snow on top of that (weak) layer, the chances for avalanches will rise and create dangerous conditions.

Q: Where are the avalanche trouble spots in Colorado ?

A: It really depends on the time of year. ... We can't really say that any spot is worse than others because it really depends on the conditions.

Q: Why does Colorado have so many avalanche fatalities?

A: It's a combination of factors, and we don't have a perfect answer for that question. If we knew exactly why Colorado has so many, hopefully then we'd be able to change it. The Colorado snowpack produces trickier avalanche conditions than a lot of other parts of the country.

We can have times when it seems like the avalanche danger is not very high, but you're still able to trigger avalanches that are strong enough to kill people. That really has to do with the fact that we're far away from oceans, we have high-elevation terrain and we have cold temperatures and a lot of wind.

Q: What can people do to avoid being caught in an avalanche?

A: The first thing is to get current information. The best way to do that is to contact the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and make sure you know what you're going to be seeing that particular day.

The second is to get a little avalanche education. You can do that online, by reading a book, taking anything from a couple hours to a couple daylong courses so you know what to do with the information the advisory is giving you and know how to recognize avalanche terrain and avoid it.

Third, be prepared in case there's an accident. If you're traveling in avalanche terrain, make sure everyone in your group is carrying rescue equipment and knows how to use it. That's an avalanche transceiver, a probe pole, a shovel and an insulated air bag or rescue device.

Q: How do air bags work?

A: The important thing to remember with any piece of equipment is that it may save your life but it's not guaranteed to do that. Your best protection to avoid getting killed by an avalanche is to use your head. There's no piece of rescue equipment out there that's going to do a better job of keeping you safe than just making good decisions.

As far as air bags go, they're a neat piece of equipment. We know how people die in avalanches; they die from asphyxiating in the snowpack when they're buried or from sustaining injuries during the ride. The air bag works to keep you from getting buried. Is it guaranteed to save your life? No.

Q: What is the best way to save yourself if caught in an avalanche?

A: First, get out of the avalanche if you can. If you can't get out, you want to stay on top of it so you don't get buried. Swim, fight, kick, do whatever you can, pull your air bag to stay on top of the flow. If you can't stay on top of the flow, you need to make sure that you protect your airways.

Q: What does someone experience when caught in an avalanche?

A: The avalanches we see in Colorado that kill people are made up of big blocks of snow that are heavy. It's a very violent experience to ride in one.

When you get buried, it's going to pack snow into your nose, ears, eye lids, mouth. Any crack is going to get jammed full.

Q: How long do you have to live after getting caught in an avalanche?

A: If they have an air pocket, you may have minutes to an hour. If you don't have an air pocket, then we're talking four to six minutes. In most cases, you need the people in your group to assess a rescue because you don't have enough time to go get help and come back and have a positive outcome.

Q: We've seen one death in Colorado so far this winter. Your prediction for avalanche fatalities this season?

A: I always say six because that's about average. We do everything we can to make sure nobody dies in Colorado. Our hope is to keep everybody safe.

Q: Do different mountain users face different avalanche dangers?

A: It's pretty similar. The differences in recreation groups really have more to do with how those groups approach the terrain. So, skiers and snowboarders tend to start at the top and go down. They tend to spend less time in harm's way because they're hiking up outside of avalanche terrain and skiing down avalanche terrain.

Snowmobiliers like to high-mark, so they oftentimes spend a lot of time in avalanche terrain. If they're doing that, they need to make sure the people watching are sitting off to the side, so if they do trigger an avalanche while high-marking, only one person gets caught.

Another thing with snowmobiliers is they can cover a huge amount of terrain in one day. In some sense, they're more likely to find the problem just because they go so far.

(Copyright © 2013 Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)

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