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Avalanche Awareness: The Dangers of Colorado's Frozen Backcountry; how to prepare

Updated: Dec 27, 2023


Living in or visiting the picturesque state of Colorado offers unparalleled opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, especially during the winter months. However, with great beauty comes great responsibility, and one must be well-prepared to tackle the challenges posed by snowy landscapes, particularly the risk of avalanches. In this blog, we'll delve into the essentials of avalanche awareness in Colorado, helping you stay safe while enjoying the winter wonderland.





Understanding Avalanche Basics:

Colorado is renowned for its diverse mountainous terrain, making it a hotbed for

avalanche activity. To navigate this environment safely, it's crucial to understand the basics of avalanches. An avalanche occurs when a mass of snow, ice, and debris rapidly descends down a mountainside. Factors such as slope angle, snowpack stability, and weather conditions contribute to avalanche risk.


Slope Angles:

Avalanches are more common on slopes with specific angles, and understanding these slope angles is crucial for avalanche awareness. The general rule of thumb is that avalanches are most likely to occur on slopes with angles between 30 to 45 degrees. This range is often referred to as the "critical angle" for avalanches.

Here's a breakdown of the slope angles and their relevance to avalanche risk:


  1. Less than 30 Degrees:

  • Slopes with angles less than 30 degrees are typically considered safer in terms of avalanche risk. The snowpack is less likely to become unstable on shallower slopes.

  1. 30 to 45 Degrees:

  • This range is where avalanches are most common. The combination of the slope angle, snowpack conditions, and other factors can contribute to the instability of the snow, increasing the risk of avalanches.

  1. Greater than 45 Degrees:

  • Slopes with angles greater than 45 degrees are less common for avalanches because the snow often sloughs off before it has a chance to accumulate and form a cohesive slab. However, the risk is not eliminated entirely, and other factors like weather conditions and snowpack stability still play a role.

It's important to note that the critical angle can vary based on factors such as snowpack characteristics, weather conditions, and terrain features. Windloading, for example, can increase the risk on certain slopes even if their natural angle is below the typical critical range.


Avalanche education and awareness, including understanding slope angles and the factors influencing avalanche risk, are essential for anyone venturing into mountainous terrain, especially in regions like Colorado where avalanches are a significant concern.





Types of Avalanches:


Avalanches can be classified into several types based on their characteristics, triggers, and the nature of the snow movement. The main types of avalanches are:


  1. Slab Avalanche:

  • Characteristics: Slab avalanches are the most common type and often the most dangerous. They occur when a cohesive layer of snow, known as a slab, breaks loose from the surrounding snowpack and slides downhill as a single unit.

  • Trigger: Slab avalanches are commonly triggered by a sudden increase in load, such as the weight of a skier or snowboarder, or by natural factors like a rapid accumulation of new snow.

  1. Loose Snow Avalanche:

  • Characteristics: Loose snow avalanches, also known as sluffs, occur when individual particles or small amounts of snow break free and descend down the slope. They are typically less dangerous than slab avalanches.

  • Trigger: Loose snow avalanches are often triggered by small disturbances, such as a skier's turn, and are more common on steeper slopes.

  1. Wet Avalanche:

  • Characteristics: Wet avalanches occur when the snowpack becomes saturated with water, causing it to lose cohesion and flow downhill. Wet avalanches are more common in the spring when temperatures rise and the snowpack starts to melt.

  • Trigger: Warm temperatures, rain, or rapid melting can trigger wet avalanches.

  1. Powder Snow Avalanche:

  • Characteristics: Powder snow avalanches involve the movement of dry, unconsolidated snow. They are typically less cohesive and less destructive than slab avalanches.

  • Trigger: Powder snow avalanches can be triggered by various factors, including the weight of a skier, snowboarder, or natural triggers like wind loading.

  1. Glide Avalanche:

  • Characteristics: Glide avalanches occur when an entire snow layer glides over the ground. They often leave distinct tracks on the landscape.

  • Trigger: Glide avalanches are unique in that they release without a specific trigger event. The snow slowly glides over a smooth surface until it reaches a point where it releases.

  1. Cornice Fall:

  • Characteristics: While not strictly an avalanche, cornice falls can lead to avalanche conditions. Cornices are overhanging masses of snow that form on ridgelines. When they break loose, they can trigger avalanches on the slopes below.

  • Trigger: Cornices can break due to their own weight, the weight of a person, or other triggers like warming temperatures.

Understanding the characteristics and triggers of different avalanche types is crucial for avalanche safety. Avalanche forecasting and education focus on helping individuals recognize and navigate these various types of avalanches when traveling in avalanche-prone terrain.





Avalanche Forecasting and Resources:

Stay informed by checking the daily avalanche forecast before heading into the backcountry. Colorado boasts excellent resources, including the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), which provides up-to-date information on avalanche conditions, forecasts, and educational materials. Familiarize yourself with the avalanche danger scale, ranging from Low to Extreme, to assess the risk level in your chosen area.


Here are some key resources for checking avalanche forecasts in Colorado:


  1. Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC):

  • The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) is the primary source for avalanche information in the state. Their website (https://avalanche.state.co.us/) offers daily avalanche forecasts, current conditions, weather updates, and educational materials.

  • CAIC provides avalanche forecasts for different regions in Colorado, including zones like Front Range, Vail and Summit County, Sawatch Range, and more.

  1. CAIC Mobile App:

  • The CAIC has a mobile app available for download, providing easy access to avalanche forecasts and information on the go. The app is a convenient tool for backcountry enthusiasts to stay updated on current conditions.

  1. NOAA National Weather Service:

  • The National Weather Service (NWS) provides weather forecasts that are closely linked to avalanche conditions. The NWS website (https://www.weather.gov/) allows you to access detailed weather forecasts, including snowfall predictions and temperature variations.

  1. Mountain Weather:

  • Understanding the weather conditions specific to mountainous regions is crucial for avalanche forecasting. Websites like MountainWeather (https://www.mountainweather.com/) provide detailed mountain weather forecasts, helping you assess the potential impact on snowpack stability.

  1. Local Avalanche Centers:

  • Some specific regions or mountain ranges may have local avalanche centers that provide additional insights and forecasts. Check if there are any local resources specific to the area you plan to explore.

  1. Mobile Apps:

  • There are various mobile apps designed for avalanche forecasting and backcountry safety. Some apps integrate data from CAIC and other sources, providing a user-friendly interface for accessing forecasts and real-time information.

Before heading into the backcountry, it's crucial to check multiple sources for a comprehensive understanding of current avalanche conditions. Keep in mind that conditions can change rapidly, so staying informed and making real-time assessments based on the most recent data is essential for safety.





Essential Gear for Avalanche Safety:

Avalanche gear serves a critical purpose in providing safety and survival tools for individuals exploring avalanche-prone terrain. The primary goal of avalanche gear is to enhance the chances of survival in the event of an avalanche and to assist in the rapid rescue of anyone buried by snow


  1. Transceiver (Beacon):

  • Purpose: A transceiver, commonly known as a beacon, is a small electronic device worn by individuals in the backcountry. Its purpose is to emit signals that can be detected by other transceivers. In the event of an avalanche, if someone is buried, the transceiver becomes a crucial tool for locating them under the snow.

  • How it works: Rescuers switch their devices to receive mode, allowing them to pick up signals from the buried person's transceiver. By following the strength and direction of the signal, rescuers can pinpoint the location of the buried individual.

  1. Probe:

  • Purpose: A probe is a long, collapsible pole used to physically locate a buried person after their approximate location has been identified using a transceiver. Probes help rescuers determine the depth at which the person is buried.

  • How it works: Rescuers probe the snowpack systematically, feeling for resistance when the probe contacts the buried person. Once the person is located, the probe helps rescuers assess the burial depth.

  1. Shovel:

  • Purpose: A shovel is an essential tool for quickly digging out a person buried by an avalanche. Time is of the essence in avalanche rescue, and a shovel enables efficient snow removal to reach the buried individual.

  • How it works: Rescuers use the shovel to dig carefully and rapidly, creating a void around the buried person. Shovels with extendable handles are convenient for carrying and provide leverage for effective digging.

  1. Avalanche Airbag Pack:

  • Purpose: An avalanche airbag pack is an additional safety measure that, when deployed, inflates a large airbag, increasing the individual's volume and helping them stay closer to the surface of the avalanche debris.

  • How it works: In the event of an avalanche, the individual triggers the airbag, which helps create buoyancy and reduces the risk of deep burial. The airbag pack is not a replacement for a transceiver, probe, and shovel but provides an extra layer of protection.


Overall, the purpose of avalanche gear is to provide individuals with the tools and equipment needed to increase their chances of survival in avalanche terrain and to facilitate efficient rescue operations. Avalanche education and practice in using this gear are equally important for backcountry enthusiasts.


Avalanche Education:

In Colorado, there are several organizations and educational institutions that offer avalanche education courses. These courses are designed to provide individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate avalanche terrain safely. Here are some reputable sources for avalanche education courses in Colorado:


  1. Colorado Mountain School (CMS):

  • Colorado Mountain School offers a variety of avalanche education courses, including AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Level 1 and Level 2 courses. These courses cover essential topics such as snowpack analysis, terrain assessment, and rescue techniques.

  1. American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE):

  • Website: AIARE

  • AIARE is a nationally recognized organization that sets the standard for avalanche education. Many providers in Colorado offer AIARE courses, and you can find a list of AIARE course providers on their website.

  1. Silverton Avalanche School:

  • Located in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the Silverton Avalanche School offers a range of avalanche education courses, including Level 1 and Level 2 courses. The school focuses on providing hands-on, field-based training.

  1. Friends of Berthoud Pass:

  • Friends of Berthoud Pass is a non-profit organization that offers free avalanche education courses. These courses are often geared toward backcountry enthusiasts and cover fundamental avalanche safety topics.

  1. Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC):

  • Website: CAIC Education

  • The CAIC provides educational resources, including links to avalanche courses and workshops offered by various providers in Colorado. Check their website for information on upcoming courses.

  1. Outdoor Adventure Quest (OAQ):

  • OAQ organizes adventure challenges and events, including avalanche education courses. They collaborate with experienced instructors to provide participants with valuable knowledge on avalanche safety.


Before enrolling in a course, it's essential to consider your skill level, the specific course requirements, and whether the course aligns with your backcountry goals. Additionally, make sure the course follows the guidelines set by the AIARE or other recognized avalanche education standards. Always prioritize hands-on, field-based training to enhance your practical skills in avalanche terrain.


Practical Tips for Avalanche Safety:


  • Travel in Pairs or Groups: Stick together, and ensure everyone in your group is well-versed in avalanche safety procedures.

  • Choose Terrain Wisely: Evaluate the avalanche risk of the area you plan to explore. Steer clear of steep slopes and areas prone to windloading.

  • Regularly Practice Avalanche Rescue Techniques: Proficiency in using your transceiver, probe, and shovel is paramount. Regular drills will enhance your response time during a real-life scenario.



What activities require Avalanche Training?:

Avalanche training is essential for individuals engaging in outdoor activities that involve venturing into avalanche-prone terrain. Avalanche training provides the necessary knowledge and skills to assess and mitigate the risks associated with avalanches. Here are some outdoor activities for which avalanche training is highly recommended:


  1. Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding:

  • Backcountry skiing and snowboarding often involve traveling in ungroomed and unpatrolled areas where avalanche risk is a significant concern. Understanding snowpack stability, terrain assessment, and rescue techniques is crucial for those exploring these environments.

  1. Snowmobiling:

  • Snowmobiling in the backcountry can expose individuals to avalanche hazards. Avalanche training is essential for snowmobilers to make informed decisions about route choices, recognize potential dangers, and be prepared for emergency situations.

  1. Snowshoeing and Winter Hiking:

  • Even activities like snowshoeing and winter hiking can lead individuals into avalanche-prone areas. Basic avalanche education is beneficial for anyone exploring snowy landscapes to understand the potential risks and take appropriate precautions.

  1. Ice Climbing:

  • Ice climbers often access remote and alpine locations, which can be prone to avalanches. Avalanche training provides climbers with the knowledge to assess the terrain and make safe decisions while enjoying the thrill of ice climbing.

  1. Mountaineering:

  • Mountaineering in snowy and alpine environments may expose individuals to avalanche hazards. Whether ascending peaks or traversing glaciers, mountaineers benefit from avalanche education to navigate safely through avalanche terrain.

  1. Winter Mountaineering and Alpine Touring:

  • Climbing and touring in alpine environments during winter require a thorough understanding of avalanche safety. Avalanche training is crucial for those participating in activities that involve ascending and descending snowy slopes.

  1. Avalanche Professionals and Guides:

  • Professionals working in avalanche-prone areas, such as ski guides, mountain guides, and avalanche forecasters, undergo extensive avalanche training. This training is essential for leading groups in challenging terrain and making critical decisions about safety.

  1. Snow Science and Research:

  • Researchers and scientists studying snow and avalanches also undergo specialized training. Their work often involves understanding the factors that contribute to avalanche formation and behavior.


It's important to note that avalanche training is not only about avoiding avalanches but also about being prepared in case of an incident. This includes knowing how to use avalanche safety equipment (transceiver, probe, shovel) and understanding effective rescue techniques.


For anyone engaging in outdoor activities in snowy or mountainous environments, particularly in regions prone to avalanches like Colorado, investing in avalanche education is a key component of responsible and safe participation in these activities.


Colorado's snow-covered landscapes offer unparalleled opportunities for winter adventures, but it's crucial to prioritize safety. By understanding avalanche basics, staying informed through reliable resources, and investing in the right gear, you can enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the Colorado backcountry while minimizing the risks associated with avalanches. Remember, preparation is the key to a safe and enjoyable winter escapade.


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