Imagine yourself deep in the San Juan Mountains, enveloped by snow-covered spruce trees standing guard to the craggy high peaks above. All is still except for the occasional wisp of wind that sends frozen water droplets dancing upon the breeze. It snowed a few inches overnight, the light and fluffy kind that makes skiers call in sick for work, lie to their bosses, or quit their jobs altogether. It’s early in the day and the best part? You’ve got it all to yourself.
It’s no wonder backcountry skiing has seen a boom in popularity in the last 20 years or so, and it’s not just the freedom of the hills that people are after. The backcountry offers skiers the opportunity to grow in more ways than just their ability to link together a few graceful turns. Communication, teamwork, and critical thinking are just a few of the skills that a backcountry skier hones in their pursuit of low-density powder snow. Of course, like most things worth doing, it all comes at a cost, and this one is more than monetary.
Imagine the day described above: The sun is out, the morning is calm, and the snow is light. In the backcountry, this scene can turn from picture-perfect to worst case scenario in a matter of seconds, and sometimes it’s hard, even for the most experienced backcountry travelers, to know when one of those seconds may occur.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an average of 27 people die in avalanche accidents in the United States every year. These people range from snowshoers to extreme skiers and novice to expert backcountry travelers. A dive into the statistics page of the CAIC reveals that there is one specific state in which avalanche accidents happen the most, and that state is Colorado. In the 10 years between 2009 and 2019, 61 people died in avalanche accidents in Colorado, nearly double that of runner-up Alaska, which is home to much bigger mountains but recorded only 34 deaths in that time. All this is to say that avalanches happen, and they don’t care who you are. Thankfully there are ways to lessen your risk and lower your exposure.
With the onslaught of COVID-19 and the inevitable repercussions it will have on ski resorts and the ski industry, it’s safe to assume that backcountry usage will spike among novice backcountry skiers looking to get their time in on the slopes. In many ways, this spike is happening with or without COVID-19. In a conversation with Keith Roush, a fixture in the San Juan skiing community and someone who has skied in these mountains for the better part of 30 years, he reminisced about a time when he knew the owner of every vehicle he saw on top of Red Mountain Pass, a sentiment that would shock anyone who drives over that section of road on any given weekend during the winter.
Luckily for those of you who find your home anywhere along the San Juan Skyway, there is ample opportunity to pursue the mentorship, education, and experience to safely play in the mountains. For those of you driving up Highway 550 as a complete beginner, organizations like Friends of the San Juans, based out of Durango, offer free avalanche awareness opportunities to learn some basic skills and immerse yourself in the community. Once you get a few tours under your belt and can successfully apply the skins to the bottom of your skis, it’s time to take it to the next level. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education serves as the gold standard in the state of Colorado for avalanche education. Pursuing Level One and Two training will give you the skills to begin making safer decisions in the backcountry. San Juan Expeditions, Silverton Avalanche School, and San Juan Mountain Guides all offer AIARE courses throughout the winter.
Jack Klim, director of operations for Durango and Silverton-based guiding company San Juan Expeditions discusses the importance of pursuing avalanche education. “Without education we are uncertain, and uncertainty often leads to stress and mistakes that otherwise could have been avoided.” Aside from helping us make better decisions, pursuing avalanche education may even allow us to have more fun. Klim says that “backcountry skiing is a leisure activity, and if folks want to enjoy it, education will ultimately help people understand, which in turn allows them to have a more enjoyable and memorable experience.”
Backcountry skiing can be a rewarding and powerful experience. But the mountains will demand respect from those seeking the rewards. By joining the conversation, becoming part of the community, and pursuing professional mentorship and education, you will begin to do your part in creating a positive and safe experience for yourself and the people around you.
When asked to sum up the importance of pursing avalanche education, Klim hesitated for just a short second and said, “self-preservation!”
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