The San Juans experience a combination of factors that contribute to the unstable and dangerous snowpack. "We have a very shallow snowpack, and that, combined with our very cold temperatures, leads to the development of weak snow, often referred to as sugar snow," explains Nicole Greene, director of the San Juan Field School and a member of Search and Rescue. "The sugar snow develops at the bottom, and when heavy snow falls on top of that it can lead to disaster."
Greene predicts this winter could be more dangerous than many in years past. "We have a thinner snowpack right now," she says. "It's just waiting for more snow to fall on it and more wind to load snow on it. Things can become quite dangerous after that happens."
In fact, the area has already had several close calls, with five Telluride ski patrollers caught in a slide in the ski area earlier this winter. One death has been reported in Colorado so far this winter, after a snowboarder was buried and killed in a slide on Berthoud Pass, near Winter Park.
"We're fixing to have a potentially dangerous year," says Greene. "We'd really like to have the opportunity to get the community educated about avalanches. Traveling in the backcountry is such a wonderful thing to do, for exercise and to see the beauty of the region." There is, however, a downside. "If you don't know how to do it safely, you're putting yourself in a risky situation."
To learn the dos and don'ts of living and playing in avalanche country, the San Juan Field School offers the Level I Telluride Avalanche School, January 6-8. The three-day course will give students a basic understanding of how to evaluate avalanche conditions. The curriculum adheres to American Avalanche Association guidelines and all participants will receive a Certificate of Completion.
As for who should take this course? "Anyone who goes out beyond the ski area boundaries in the wintertime: snowshoeing, snowmobiling or cross-country skiing," says Greene. "Some people who take the course want to avoid avalanche terrain; others take it because they want to go out the backcountry gate."
Students in the Level I course will learn what factors contribute to avalanche formation and release, as well as spend time talking about terrain analysis and route-finding skills, "your best defense" against getting "caught in an avalanche."
Weather factors and snowpack formation that leads to avalanches will also be discussed, and time will be spent talking about rescue techniques and avalanche beacon use.
"We're an education organization," says Greene, and have fantastic instructors.
"They're not just knowledgeable in their field, but really good educators as well. For us, that's a high priority."
Instructors for the course include avalanche forecasters, snow safety experts, professional ski patrollers and/or professional members of the American Avalanche Association. This year's group of instructors includes Craig Sterbenz, Snow Safety Director for the Telluride Ski Area; Telluride Ski Patroller Aleph Pippin; CAIC Forecaster Scott Toepfer and Greene.
In addition to discussing external avalanche factors, students in the class will focus on the development of group dynamics and decision-making skills to use when in the backcountry
"We try to spend equal amounts of time in the classroom and the field to reach the greatest number of people," says Greene. "Some people learn kinesthetically and hands on, while others learn visually and through audio." Fieldwork will be conducted in actual avalanche terrain in the Telluride Ski Area.
"It's a good class. People in our community have had a lot of close calls, and we've had a lot of avalanche fatalities in Telluride," says Greene. "I feel like this education effort is a great way we can potentially save lives and prevent tragedy. I got the page last year when Brian O'Neill was caught, and my first thought was, which of my friends is out there? It's a scary thing."
Requirements for students in the Level I course are the ability to travel around the ski area on advanced beginner to intermediate terrain. Avalanche rescue gear will be provided for a minimal fee, but those with their own beacon, shovel and probes are encouraged to bring them.
The $210 course fee includes access to the ski area during the course, a book called Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, three days of instruction and all instructional materials, as well as coffee and snacks each morning. The class runs from 8 a.m. to between 4 and 5 p.m. each day. Space is limited and the class is filling quickly, so Greene encourages anyone interested to register soon.
An advanced Avalanche Level II course will be offered Jan. 13-15, designed for people who have taken the Level I course and are interested in advancing their knowledge in the field of snow science; this is a backcountry course held at the Alta Lakes Observatory, and both food and lodging are included in the price.
"The instructors are there the entire time, so there is unstructured time for participants to interact with them and ask questions," says Greene.
A Babes in the Backcountry Avalanche Level I course, taught by women for women, will be held Feb. 24-26, also at Alta Lakes.
The San Juan Field School offers several one-day clinics, including a one-day Avalanche Refresher on Feb. 11 for people who have taken the Level I course and want to refresh their skills, and a one-day Babes in the Backcountry clinic on Feb. 12, a brief introductory to avalanche awareness.
For more information about the San Juan Field School and any of the classes and events, visit www.tellurideadventures.com or call 728-4101.
The San Juan Field School is a non-profit organization that focuses on providing experience and place-based education to the community at large. The programs of the San Juan Field School are made possible through support of the Telluride Ski and Golf Company, C.C.A.A.S.E., the Mountain Village Owner's Association, the San Juan Outdoor School, and the Telluride Foundation.