We’re on the cusp of winter here in Colorado – with our alpine friends in Winter Park, Crested Butte and Silverton already seeing snow around the usual spots. Down here in the Front Range, we’ve woken to very crisp mornings and the leaves are flying around as our chinook winds pick up and slow down in their diurnal cycles. It’s a season of change, and excitement. Breaking out the long-sleevers (or puffys for you pumpkin-spice-loving mamas) feels good because it reminds us how fun it is to feel snowflakes in the air and anticipate untracked runs on a snowy mountain. This is a time for powder-induced renewal and exploring the snowy backcountry once again.
Our intent at Friends of Berthoud Pass is to promote backcountry avalanche awareness, whether you’re 7 miles into the wilderness on a Hut Trip, 500 yards off of US Hwy 40 or only two feet on the other side of the ski rope. It’s all considered “backcountry” to us, and that reasoning is why we volunteer our time and energy in helping spread avalanche awareness.
We see many talented skiers and riders making the jump outside patrolled ski area boundaries and into the backcountry to access “the goods” – but too many do so without a fully-inflated “parachute” of avalanche awareness. For us, trying to spread the backcountry avalanche awareness message is tricky. A 2-hour classroom can be the first step, but there needs to be a way to practice the concepts, and even better, remember the concepts. Sometimes a catchy phrase can help trigger the memory of these concepts which in turn can help inflate that avalanche awareness “parachute” faster. Here’s a phrase to consider for inflating your own “parachute” – a phrase which came to us when thinking about our widespread snowpack nemesis who keeps showing up year after year:
“HOARR Your Way to Safer Backcountry Travel”
Let’s start with the definition:
Hoar /hôr/ def. 1. n. Faceted snow crystals, usually poorly or completely unbonded (unsintered) to adjacent crystals, creating a weak zone in the snowpack. Depth hoar forms at the base of the snowpack in response to a large temperature gradient between the warmer ground beneath the snowpack and the surface. Surface hoar forms during calm, clear nights and typically gets buried with subsequent snowfall, creating a weak layer in between slabs in the snowpack. 2. n. the nemesis of backcountry skiers and riders, appearing in a snowpack near you…year, after year, after year.
HOARR /hôrr/ def. 1. n. acronym used to convey an approach to safely approaching each day, season or lifetime of travel in the backcountry.
The acronym’s meaning:
- H is for Huddle: put your heads together (you’re not going out solo, are you?) and discuss the current avalanche forecast, new snowfall, route choices and alternatives before you even hit the snow. Communicate freely your objectives and fears about the day. Unanimously choose your tour route and plan your return. Make sure everyone in your group has proper rescue gear – and knows how to use it.
- O is for Observe: while humping up the skin-track, riding the lift up or waiting for your buddy to get the sled going, take a look around and search for nature’s clues or red-flags. Use every single one of your senses to observe the snow and weather happening around you. Look around for recent avalanches, poke the snow and dig deep. If you’re not covered in snow when you’re out there, you’re doing it wrong!
- A is for Avoid: identify avalanche terrain, consequential areas and traps along your route. Stick to your planned tour options, and avoid those terrains no matter how sexy they look. Communicate with your group and don’t hesitate to choose that lower-risk alternative “Plan B” route if you need to. Plan A will always be there in the future. Enjoy the tour, have Fun and know you are a very lucky soul to even be out there in the first place.
- R is for Rescue: Can’t forget this one. It goes without saying that you should practice with your avalanche gear early and often. But we all have trouble doing this regularly. If you’re going into the backcountry, you really must be prepared for rescue, so that if the unenviable time comes, You Are Ready to save a life. Practice here, practice now. When you’re out there on a tour, practice your strategic shoveling moves while digging a hasty pit. Hide a beacon during lunch break and search for it. Open that probe over and over to examine snowpack depth along the way. There’s a reason why the pro’s practice these everyday and more – and it’s not because they’re told to. Its because their life depends on it.
- R is for Return: Like any good mountaineer knows, returning to your departure point is the goal of the trip. Climbing McKinley doesn’t end at the summit, it’s only the halfway mark. Get back to the trailhead, back to your car, and back to your family. This ensures you can get stoked again in the future and yes, this is the most important part of your tour! When you return, be sure to also Review* the day’s goods, your group decisions, lessons learned and share your observations with your local avalanche center!
So that’s it, a mantra of sorts for this season which we believe will help make you a safer backcountry traveler:
HOARR – Huddle, Observe, Avoid, Rescue and Return!
2014-15 is FOBP’s 11th consecutive year offering free backcountry avalanche awareness classes to the public and we are proud of this accomplishment. Each summer and fall, we log many hours creating program content and promoting events which support our non-profit efforts. Our sponsors donate time, product, movies and marketing efforts to our cause because they believe in our message. We reach out to our professional avalanche expert advisors for ideas and guidance, and we also spend the winter practicing what we preach.
Why do we do this? We do so because we believe that promoting avalanche awareness will help stem the tide of avalanche accidents in our mountain-loving community. We do so because someone once gave us a nugget of information that saved our life and we want to pass it on. We do so because we’ve lost friends to backcountry avalanches. We do so because it’s our mission.
We look forward to seeing you out there. Check out our facebook page and also our latest event calendar. Send us a note with your thoughts. It’s going to be a great season for HOARR-ing around, we can feel it.
-Friends of Berthoud Pass