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Danger and Diligence: Staying Safe in the Backcountry

What I learned from a beginner course with Colorado Adventure Guides

- LISA BLAKE

Exhilarating and humbling. That mountainous theme unfolded silently and abruptly while nine women booted up and slapped skins on skis, prepping for a day in Colorado’s snow-loaded backcountry.

Colorado Adventure Guides’ Introduction to Backcountry Skiing Course lured ladies from Breckenridge, Denver, Vail and beyond to the Mayflower Gulch trailhead while a persistent February storm steadily painted the craggy amphitheater tucked between Copper Mountain and Leadville.

Our certified guides for the day Katie MacKnight and Susie Nothnagel brought calming confidence, splitting us into two smaller, COVID-friendly groups and showing us how to properly cross-body clip an avalanche beacon—under the jacket, against the ribs, facing out and away from other devices. (Did you know the foil from your sandwich can interfere with the beacon? Yep. Keep them two feet apart.) The potentially life-saving transceiver is worthless in a burial if rescuers can’t pinpoint your radio signal.

burial

That’s a snow slab slap in the face reality term that sticks with you. Especially when the 2020/21 season is shaping up to be one of the deadliest avalanche fatality years on record. With 11 Colorado deaths already, we’ve almost doubled the total of last season’s casualties. And it’s only February. “Colorado has a continental snowpack, which is known for being more unstable than snowpacks in other parts of the country,” says Susie, a longtime Breckenridge Ski Patroller.

The stats are unnerving and may make you wonder why anyone would risk it for a few fresh turns and some hallowed high-country solitude. As we trekked and glided further into the scenery—swapping tips for layering, peeing in the frozen woods and packing protein-rich fuel that won’t freeze up—the 12,000-foot appeal revealed itself.

Hiking up a low-angle east-facing slope, pulling off our skins while fat flakes and hurried wind swiped at our pink cheeks, we floated down untouched knee-deep powder, one at a time, drawing our respective lines on a blank white canvas. I understood why our fearless guides head away from the maze lines and chairlifts on their days off. And why they spend their time on the clock enabling and empowering women to feel comfortable in the backcountry.

This introductory course was designed to help us develop the technical skills for backcountry confidence. A stepping stone to an AIARE Level I Course, we learned how to use backcountry equipment and avalanche safety gear, we learned about trip planning and terrain selection, how to perform kick turns and set tracks and how to use a beacon, probe and shovel to rescue a buried friend within the precious 12-minute post-burial window.

Katie and Susie imparted as much as they could in the seven-hour session, keeping it playful and interactive. The biggest take-away from our outdoor classroom was that when going into the backcountry, knowledge is ammo. The more you seek and learn, the safer you might be if something were to happen. And it’s all about who you’re skiing with and their knowledge level—they’re the ones who are going to save you after all.

“In the winter of 2020/2021 we are experiencing the extreme end of the spectrum for instability,” Susie says. “This is an excellent winter to educate yourself, using all of the resources out there to learn more about the snowpack before you decide if you want to travel into avalanche terrain.”

Nine strong women skied away that Friday with a quiver of new tips, tricks and backcountry knowledge. 

Thinking about heading into the backcountry? Tap Gravity Haus partners Colorado Adventure Guides for info on upcoming backcountry workshops and avalanche safety classes.

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