Avalanche Season Brings Opportunities to Learn How to Avoid Them
by Martinique Davis
Dec 09, 2004 | 978 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With an already dreamy blanket of white snow on its peaks and more winter snowstorms in the forecast, Telluride's winter backcountry adventure season has begun. But the current snowy conditions also signify the inevitable start of avalanche season, and with it, the beginning of avalanche education classes.

This Monday night marks the start of the Avalanche Awareness Forum Series, a program put on by the San Juan Field School and the Telluride Ski Patrol. The first forum, scheduled for 7 p.m., Dec.13 at Rebekah Hall, is titled "10 Ways to Stay Alive in the San Juans." This introduction to safe backcountry travel in the Telluride region will be highlighted by presentations by Craig Sterbenz, Snow Safety Director for the Telluride Ski Area, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, Ski Patrol Director Gary Richard, Peter Inglis of the Snow Safety Department of the Telluride Ski Patrol, and the new U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger, Scott Spielman. Together they will take a look at what makes the San Juan Snowpack so dangerous and how to be prepared to make smart decisions when traveling in the backcountry.

"It is a reminder to all of us that we live in one of the most dangerous snow climates in the world," explains Inglis, who along with the San Juan Field School's Nicole Greene, helps organize the series. "We want to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to avalanche accidents. It seems like people are more careful when there is a recent avalanche death or accident, but they become more complacent [about avalanche safety protocols] when it's been a few years since a major event. We want to combat that complacency… The past does, after all, have a way of repeating itself."

Monday night's talk will examine the history of Telluride avalanche accidents in an effort to learn from past mistakes. As a representative of San Miguel County Search and Rescue, Sheriff Masters will explain what kinds of rescue services are available in our county and why organized rescue rarely results in live recoveries. Craig Sterbenz and Scott Spielman will also look at ski area boundary management issues and backcountry access from the Telluride Ski Area.

"This is a good introduction for people who haven't done much backcountry travel, but it is also a great way for seasoned backcountry travelers to update their knowledge and get back into thinking about avalanche safety," says Greene. This event kicks off a whole winter of avalanche education courses, clinics and events. This year the San Juan Field School has expanded its programs to include three three-day avalanche courses, three one-day avalanche clinics, as well as a variety of free forums, beacon rescue clinics and other educational programs.

The 14th Annual Telluride Avalanche School Level I course is scheduled for Jan. 14-16. With additional sponsorship from the San Juan Outdoor School and the Telluride Ski Patrol, the introductory course provides the basics to evaluate avalanche conditions. Students will be introduced to the avalanche phenomenon in both classroom and field sessions. In learning about the relationship that exists between mountain weather, snowpack stability and terrain features, students will gain a basic understanding of how to evaluate avalanche conditions. This course is a must for anyone who even considers venturing into the San Juan backcountry. Telluride Ski Area lift access will be provided for non-pass holders. Course cost is $205.

This year will also mark the 2nd Annual Telluride Avalanche School Backcountry Level II course, on Jan. 7-9. Co-sponsored by the San Juan Outdoor School, this class is designed for those serious about the winter backcountry. An advanced level course, the Level II provides an in-depth look at avalanches at a level appropriate to snow workers, avalanche professionals and long-time backcountry enthusiasts. Lodging and food is provided at the lovely Alta Lakes Observatory; $395.00/person includes food and lodging. Greene reports that there are only a few spaces remaining, so make your reservation soon.

The Alta Lakes Observatory will also be the setting for the women-only Babes In the Backcountry Avalanche School Level I course, Feb. 25-27. This program provides women with an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of avalanches in a supportive learning environment with some of the best female avalanche educators in the state.

"We create a nurturing, supportive environment for women to learn something about a field that is traditionally male-dominated," says Greene.

This comprehensive, course covers the same material as a standard Level I course but does so in a backcountry setting, making field sessions more readily accessible. The $385 fee includes three days of professional instruction, informative take home reference material, equipment & clothing demos, two nights lodging, light snacks, all main meals at the lodge, transportation of overnight gear to and from the cabin, permits/backcountry fees/lift ticket and a signature BITB goodie bag.

The first one-day avalanche education class of the season is also a female-only course, to be held on Jan. 2. The Babes in the Backcountry Avalanche Refresher Clinic is designed for women who have some backcountry experience, but want to re-educate themselves about avalanche protocol and hazard evaluation. The workshop will include terrain analysis, snow stability evaluation, and beacon and rescue techniques. This is a great class for those who have taken an Avalanche Level I course but want to refresh their knowledge before enrolling in a Level II. This clinic is additionally sponsored by the San Juan Outdoor School and Babes in the Backcountry and costs $95.

A co-ed One-day Avalanche Refresher Clinic for $95 will be held on Feb. 12. Like the Women's version in January, this course is for anyone who needs a reminder about the power of nature and a review of protocol and hazard evaluation procedures. Students will spend the morning in a classroom environment and the afternoon on a backcountry tour.

On the following day, Feb. 13, women will again rule as the Babes In the Backcountry Avalanche Awareness Clinic takes to the field. This clinic provides women with an excellent simplified introduction to the avalanche phenomenon in a supportive and nurturing environment. Students will spend the morning in a classroom environment learning about the ways in which snowpack, terrain, and weather contribute to avalanche conditions. In the afternoon, they will venture into the field to study the basics of terrain evaluation, snow stability analysis and avalanche rescue skills. This $95 clinic is co-sponsored by the San Juan Outdoor School and Babes in the Backcountry.

The Monday Night Avalanche Awareness Forum Series discussions continure throughout the winter. Designed to encourage avalanche safety and awareness, these programs involve a variety of guest speakers and are free to the public. After the Dec. 13 event, the next discussion is scheduled for Jan. 10 and will highlight the stories of well-known big mountain skier Hilaree O'Neill. On Jan. 24, the series will introduce "Avalanche Rescue & Beacon Use," followed by four free two-hour beacon sessions throughout the winter.

The Feb. 7 and Feb. 21 forum discussion topics have yet to be announced; the final forum of the series takes place March 7 and is titled "Close Calls - Local Stories of Avalanches."
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