Driving up Loveland Pass on my way to meet friends at A-Basin, I gave a group of snowboarders a ride for another lap. “How are the avy conditions?” I asked the one closest to the rear window of my pickup as they loaded up. “Great, super soft up there, man,” he replied, pulling a silver can from his otherwise empty backpack. “Did you check the avalanche forecast?” I asked, realizing there wasn’t a shovel in his pack. “Huh? Yeah, the weather forecast is good, bro, more snow coming.” He sipped the beer and passed it to another. I realized he didn’t know what forecast I was talking about, so the rest of the drive stayed quiet as I questioned my decision to enable these guys to take another lap. I dropped the crew off, yelled “stay safe guys!” and spent the rest of the day wondering if they had the slightest idea how to follow my advice.
Since the release of the Marker Duke ten years ago, there has been a noticeably consistent rise in the number of backcountry users. With this increased traffic beyond the snow-safety boundaries of a ski area, one can’t help but wonder how many backcountry travelers actually took the time to take an avalanche safety course. I sat down with Jim Donovan, the executive director of the Silverton Avalanche School, and asked him about the organization and his recommendations to those who are looking to start or continue their avalanche education.
As the director of the oldest continuously operating avalanche school in the country, Donovan carries a wealth of knowledge about both the technical aspects of snow safety, and what to look for in any avalanche education class. “For starters, make sure your instructor or instructing organization is certified by the American Avalanche Association ,” Donovan says. The AAA oversees and certifies snow safety instructors, ensuring the lessons you learn feature the most current snow science standard.
Don’t rely on outdated training: If you took a Level 1 course more than five years ago but don’t have the resources for a Level 2 course, Donovan recommends one of the one- or two-day refreshers offered by many AAA-certified organizations and instructors. Hiring a guide for a private refresher might pair well with the first day of the hut trip you have planned this winter.
Don’t have time for a full course before you take your first trip beyond the ski area gates? “Check out Know Before You Go , an online avalanche awareness video, as an absolute minimum,” Donovan says. This video, combined with basic avalanche awareness courses offered by organizations such as Friends of Berthoud Pass , provides an excellent introduction to staying safe in avalanche terrain.
There were no reported incidents that day on Loveland Pass when I gave the snowboard bros a ride, so my worst fears did not come true. But hopefully, more people in Colorado will invest in their education before investing too much in the latest and greatest backcountry travel equipment, alleviating some of the safety concerns that have grown with the number of users.