Just this week, a lone snowboarder reported that he had been caught in an avalanche in the E-Ticket area of Bear Creek Basin, beyond the Backcountry Access Point atop the Ski Resort’s Gold Hill lift. Although the snowboarder escaped the incident unscathed, the slide (which ran nearly to the ground) served as a grim reminder that the region’s snowpack is notoriously unstable.
Avalanches in Telluride’s Bear Creek Basin have taken the lives of six people over the last twenty years. The near-misses – avalanche accidents that could have proven deadly but didn’t – are impossible to tally.
Some victims of such “close calls” will share their stories at Monday night’s Avalanche Forum, the San Juan Outdoor School’s final presentation of the season. “Close Calls –Locals Tell Their Stories of Avalanche Encounters” is free and open to the public, 7 p.m. at Rebekah Hall on March 12.
“People tend to be more conservative in the backcountry when there’s been a recent accident,” says Telluride Ski Patrol Snow Safety Team member Peter Inglis, who partners with SJOS to put on the forums. “People need to be reminded of that trap – that they can become more complacent when there hasn’t been a recent accident. History tends to repeat itself.”
Local skier Brian O’Neill, who was caught and injured in an avalanche in Nellie Bowl in February of 2005, will join a host of other locals to share harrowing accounts of coming face-to-face with avalanches. Inglis urges anyone with an avalanche story to call SJOS at 708-7736 and arrange to participant in the forum
The event is designed after the book Snowy Torrents, a compilation of both close calls and fatal avalanche accidents. “It’s a good learning tool, to be able to learn from other people’s experiences,” Inglis says.
In addition to Monday’s forum, those who want to expand their winter backcountry knowledge have one more chance to attend a SJOS Level I avalanche education course on March 16-18.
“We wanted to offer one last Level 1, so that anyone who wanted to attend other courses earlier in the year, but couldn’t get in, would have that chance,” says Josh Butson, director of the San Juan Outdoor School.
The $210 course fee includes a lift ticket. Like other Level 1 programs, course time will be divided between the classroom and the outdoors.
SJOS’s final avalanche education program of the winter season focuses on snowmobile safety in the backcountry. A brand new, collaborative effort between SJOS, To-Hell-U-Riders Cycles and Sleds, and Dunton Hot Springs resort, the one-and-a-half day clinic will provide snowmobile enthusiasts with a simplified introduction to the avalanche phenomenon.
“What we’re hoping to get across is that snowmobiling isn’t about reckless abandon,” says Paul Russell, longtime snowmobiler and owner of To-Hell-U-Riders. With the class, “people can make better decisions, which may mean that they don’t go places where they would have gone before.”
In recent years, the Colorado snowmobile community has experienced an increasing number of avalanche deaths. The second avalanche fatality of 2007 occurred in the northern San Juans outside of Del Norte in early February, where two snowmobilers were highmarking on a southeast-facing bowl. The upper snowmobiler triggered an avalanche from a low angle terrain feature that propagated across the bowl. The lower rider, who had turned and was descending, did not see the avalanche that caught him from above.
According to Russell, contemporary snowmobiles are lighter and more powerful than their older counterparts, allowing riders to access more extreme (and dangerous) terrain. Educating riders about avalanches is the most important component of safe snowmobile travel in the backcountry.
“The danger [from avalanches] is always there – but ignorance is the real danger,” says Russell.
This is the first time a snowmobile-oriented avalanche course has been held locally. Dunton Hot Springs near Dolores, an exquisitely renovated ghost town and haven for snowmobilers and other winter backcountry travelers, will host the event.
“The terrain here is just fantastic,” says Dunton Hot Springs Manager Clare Evans. “Where else can you ride into a ghost town in the middle of nowhere? It’s an incredible adventure.”
The Friday, March 24-Saturday, March 25 course is billed as an introductory course for snowmobile enthusiasts.
“Avalanche awareness is for more than just skiers,” says Russell. The snowmobile-specific course will address unique issues related to snowmobiles – specifically, how the heavy machines affect the snowpack differently than the weight of a skier or snowboarder.
Event sponsors hope the course will grow into a more in-depth avalanche education program focusing on snowmobile traffic. Butson explains that this first class is designed as a more “laid-back” alterative to other avalanche education programming, like the Avalanche Level 1 course. Students will spend Friday in the classroom and field, learning about the ways snowpack, terrain, and weather contribute to avalanche conditions. The next morning will be spent entirely in the field to study the basics of terrain evaluation and avalanche rescue techniques. No prior experience is necessary.
The $395 tuition fee includes one night’s stay at the Dunton Hot Springs resort, gourmet meals, and a To-Hell-U-Riders gift bag. Participants also have the option of adding an extra night’s stay to the package for an additional fee.