Saturday’s tragic avalanche on Loveland Pass was Colorado’s deadliest since 1962 and has impacted many, many people, including the FOBP Field Team. While we mourn the loss of friends, colleagues, ski partners and loved ones, we invite you to stand together with us as a backcountry community as we endeavor to learn from this tragedy, carry on and move forward.
Looking out for our community and keeping each other safe is not so simple as just attending an avalanche course and buying a transceiver, probe and shovel. It’s about mentorship and craftsmanship. It takes not just one season or even several seasons, but a lifetime of cooperation and observation to learn and hone decision-making skills in complex avalanche terrain.
When we travel in avalanche terrain there is always uncertainty. Even with careful analysis of weather, terrain and snowpack we can never assure 100% certainty. The only way to eliminate uncertainty is to avoid the avalanche hazard altogether and that means avoiding our amazing mountains. Not happening.
As we reflect on accidents it’s important to recognize that there are no lessons learned in speculation or conjecture. We each have many questions about how such a tragedy could occur and about the events leading up to the incident. Until more information is released we can do little more than speculate.
Real insight and growth comes from reviewing our own past ski tours, reflecting on our decisions and mistakes and asking the difficult question: how much luck was involved.
We have yet to read about an avalanche accident where the victims were doing something we wouldn’t have done ourself. As backcountry adventurers, we share a lot in common in this regard. We all want to revel in the astounding beauty of our high places, to push ourselves physically, vanquish our self-doubt, proudly achieve our goals and safely make it home at the end of the day.
Our individual experience and ambitions contribute to the vibrancy of our community. We love to plan adventures with our friends. Many of us love to share our stories and photographs. Often those stories inform other people’s adventures and, in some cases, they keep people alive.
Together we can foster a culture of mentorship and education where we share our experience and observations selflessly, without ego and without expectation. By sharing our knowledge and experience we can learn how to better read the snow, and learn when to press on and when to turn around and return another day.
As you enjoy the backcountry this Spring remember the old adage that unusual weather conditions create unusual avalanches. Colorado is experiencing one of the worst drought cycles on record. What we may not understand and often don’t talk about, is the effect this pattern is having on our avalanche problem.
Looking back at our seasonal snowpack history, we saw early season conditions that created much larger and more advanced depth hoar—weak snow grains that exist at the bottom of the snowpack—than typical. While this type of weak layer is common in Colorado, the extent and size of the grains this year has been exceptional, resulting in a particularly weak snowpack.
The threat of deep slab avalanches failing through all layers, (such as the one on Saturday) typically fades by late-winter (usually March), yet here we are in late April still seeing these big and deep avalanches. This problem will likely persist until hot summer temperatures eventually melt it away.
Backcountry skiing in Colorado is changing. We are seeing more users, better gear, faster information. Remember as you’re out there this Spring to not let your guard down. Don’t be complacent and don’t assume that experience alone will keep you safe.
Avalanches in Colorado are tricky. They are not only widespread and complex, but they can be sneaky. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’ll inevitably see something you never expected. We all must stay extremely vigilant with our decision-making and terrain management, keeping in mind the unusual nature of this season.
Take the time to learn, to mentor, to question and to share your observations. If we work together there’s no doubt that we’ll be better equipped to handle any conditions the future has in store for us. And be less reliant on luck.