A Transplant’s Guide To Colorado Avalanche Season

After waiting patiently, winter is finally approaching and ski season is here. Pass holders, rejoice. For the more adventurous among us, dominating Copper Mountain might not feel like enough. Backcountry skiing and snowboarding is growing especially popular in Colorado. But it’s also especially dangerous.

READ: Everything You Need to Know About Colorado’s 2021/2022 Ski Season

Alongside ski season comes avalanche season. In Colorado, avalanches are quite common. Each year, thousands of avalanches are triggered in the state. Nearly 100 people get caught in snow slides each year, and about a handful die, sometimes more. Colorado has the highest avalanche fatality rate of any state. If you’re newer to Colorado or backcountry recreation, the backcountry is not for the spontaneous or faint of heart. Learning about avalanche safety will keep you, your friends and fellow trekkers safe.

Before you head to the natural slopes, here’s what you need to know about avalanche preparedness. 

Get Familiar: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

San Juan Mountains, CAIC, Brian Lazar, Ellie Sullum

San Juan Mountains, courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

What’s an avalanche anyway? Also known as snow slides, avalanches are sudden and rapid downhill flows of snow. They are large, powerful and very dangerous.

In some scenarios, it doesn’t take much to cause an avalanche. They can happen naturally, or be triggered by human activity. 

Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) is a team of scientists and educators dedicated to tracking avalanches and spreading avalanche education. They are the central resource for avalanche education, sightings, forecasting and reporting in the state.

“People can really think about [the center] as a central hub where people can submit observations and then we produce info where people can make safe decisions about the backcountry,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director or CAIC.

Learn How to Read a Forecast + Make Good Judgement

CAIC, Vail Pass, Ellie Sullum, Brian Lazar

Vail Pass, courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

One of the most useful and necessary tools to get acquainted with is the Avalanche Forecast. CAIC forecasts take real-time conditions and accurate risk measurement into account. To see a forecast, you can click on the region of Colorado you plan to visit. Backcountry avalanche forecasts have several levels of detail.

“To create a forecast, we get weather, snowpack and avalanche reports from our own forecasters and we crowdsource information as well. The public will share what they’re seeing in the backcountry,” said Lazar.

At baseline, you can read the forecast for a chosen mountain range at each level of elevation. The general forecast includes snowpack conditions, risk level and a general summary of what to know before you go. It’s essential to check the avalanche forecast at least once a day every day in the week leading up to your trip.

CAIC uses a standardized risk scale; make sure to familiarize yourself with it.

Staying Safe In The Back Country

Gore Range, CAIC, Brian Lazar, Ellie Sullum

Avalanche in the Gore Range, Summit County. Photo courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Once you’re prepared to venture out with the right information, it’s critical to have the skills and supplies necessary to stay safe on your backcountry trip. 

Back Country Gear Essentials:

  • Avy transceiver (that’s well maintained!)
  • Snow shovel
  • A probe
  • Helmet
  • Rescue gear backpack
  • Navigation
  • Satellite communication device
  • First aid pack 
  • Headlamp
  • Extra food, water and layers
  • Space blanket
  • Emergency shelter

Preparing for the backcountry means preparing for any situation, so consider this list as the minimum for a safe trip. 

Regarding preparing for any situation, avalanche education includes avalanche rescue preparedness. You need to be ready for an emergency. Go through this guide to calling for rescue.

More of a visual learner? CAIC has a series of Know Before You Go videos available on its website.  

Last, share this checklist with a friend. Avalanche preparedness saves lives and ensures everyone can have fun out in the mountains. 

“I think all of us at the Avalanche Center see this work as a duty for the safety and well-being of people recreating in the backcountry. We take our role as public safety communicators pretty seriously, so people can use this information to make safe decisions,” said Lazar.

Want to get serious about back-country recreation? Looking for more in-depth avalanche education? CAIC has that too. You can sign up for in-person or online avalanche education training and certification courses.

With proper education and preparedness, more folks can avoid avalanches each season. Spread the word, stay safe and have fun!