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By Nick Kogos | Visit Durango

Any adventurous spirit who’s walked around Molas Pass, La Plata Canyon, or Vallecito Reservoir during the winter has felt the urge to step into fresh, untracked snow. Whether via skis, snowshoes, or snowmobile, the calling to explore the untouched wilderness areas around Durango is high during winter.

But before you take that first step into untouched snow, you must have a solid understanding of backcountry safety and responsibility.

We’ve put together this helpful resource to provide the basics of how to safely and responsibly explore the backcountry and where to get training around the Durango area:

Avalanche Awareness in the Backcountry

In the backcountry, there’s no lodge and no ski patrol – you’re on your own to make decisions regarding your safety.

In the San Juan Mountains, the avalanches are particularly bad compared to other portions of the United States. The high elevation, cold temperatures, and dry air are a recipe for continuous avalanches throughout the season.

Some of the most active avalanche areas around the state are right in our backyard: La Plata Mountains, Molas Pass, Coal Bank Pass, Red Mountain Pass, and Wolf Creek Pass. We see consistent avalanche activity throughout the winter season.

In fact, statewide, Colorado sees the highest number of avalanches per year out of any state in the United States.

What is Avalanche Awareness?

Avalanche awareness is the understanding of the factors that contribute to their occurrence, and the necessary precautions to take when exploring avalanche-prone areas.

This encompasses identifying potential avalanche sites, interpreting weather patterns, understanding snowpack conditions, and applying safe travel techniques in the backcountry.

It’s a blend of education, experience, and good decision-making that can make all the difference in the wilderness around the Durango area.

Why is Avalanche Awareness Important?

Avalanche awareness is vital because it’s a matter of life and death.

Colorado sees over 5,000 avalanches yearly, and those unprepared face severe risks.

You will likely encounter avalanches in your backcountry career around Durango.

Avalanches are fast and powerful; they can sweep away everything, including explorers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, or just walking through the woods.

Knowledge of avalanche awareness helps ensure that your exploration of the snow-covered wilderness is safe and enjoyable.

Different Types of Avalanche Safety Training

When it comes to training, there are a number of different educational routes you can go, depending on your interests.

Here are some of the standard classes:

Introduction to the Backcountry

A simple half-day class where you’ll be introduced to standard safety equipment, how to deploy probes and work beacons, and the basics on snowpack and mitigating avalanche hazards.

AIARE 1- also known as “Avy 1”

AIARE 1, also referred to as “Avy 1”, is a three-day foundational course offering an in-depth exploration of avalanche terrain, snow science, and rescue techniques.

Participants learn to recognize and evaluate potential hazards, make informed decisions, and execute effective rescue maneuvers in the event of an avalanche.

Throughout the course, there’s a strong emphasis on practical, hands-on learning in a real backcountry environment.

AIARE Rescue

AIARE Rescue is a one-day intensive course that hones your skills in search and rescue techniques specific to avalanches.

The course focuses on improving decision-making skills under pressure, efficient use of avalanche transceivers, strategic shoveling methods, and teamwork coordination.

The goal is to equip backcountry adventurers with the skills to respond effectively and efficiently to an avalanche incident.

AIARE 2- also known as “Avy 2”

AIARE 2, colloquially known as “Avy 2,” is a comprehensive four-day course aimed at experienced backcountry adventurers.

This course delves deeper into the nuances of snow science, terrain analysis, and hazard management.

Providing extensive field experience empowers learners with advanced skills to assess and navigate complex avalanche terrains, conduct detailed snowpack analysis, and make sound decisions in challenging conditions.

It’s an investment in your safety and the safety of those who venture with you into the backcountry.

Where to Get Avalanche Safety Training

Fortunately for us in southwest Colorado, there are a number of local outfitters and guides that can provide the necessary safety training for those looking to explore in the backcountry.

Here are some of our local outfitters that regularly have avalanche safety during the winter season:

  • Silverton Avalanche School
  • Purgatory Snowcat Adventures
  • San Juan Expeditions
  • Pine Needle Mountaineering
  • San Juan Mountain Guides

Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie seeking the thrill of snowmobiling or a nature lover looking to find tranquility through a serene snowshoe hike, Durango’s winter wonderland has something to offer every adventurer.

Be safe and have fun exploring Durango’s winter wonderland!

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