Avalanche beacon station encourages backcountry safety | SteamboatToday.com

Avalanche beacon station at Steamboat Resort encourages backcountry safety

Members of Steamboat Ski Patrol conduct avalanche mitigation in 2008 on the west side of Steamboat Resort near Storm Peak Express. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs offer winter adventure-seekers a myriad of backcountry routes to explore.

They can also pose life-threatening dangers.

New snow and strong winds have increased avalanche risks in the backcountry around Steamboat.

To help people prepare for and stay safe in the backcountry, even when things go awry, the Steamboat Ski Patrol upgraded its avalanche beacon training station at Steamboat Resort. It constructed a new sign this season to encourage the public to utilize the free service.

Beacon Basin, located next to Ski Patrol headquarters at the top of the Sundown Express lift, offers a place for the public to test their own avalanche beacons and make a practice rescue.

Dave Thomas, a longtime ski patroller who helped to install a wireless system at Beacon Basin last season, said the updates allow patrollers to move the beacons. This makes it possible to operate them in a variety of snow conditions or with no snow at all.

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"We always want the public to have more avalanche training," he said. "With this system, we are able to train people throughout the day and throughout the year."

An avalanche beacon is just one component of a three-part avalanche rescue system. The other two components include a probe — essentially a long pole — and a shovel.

"You need all three parts for it to be effective," Thomas said.

An avalanche rescue works like this — before people embark on a backcountry trek in the mountains, they should turn on their beacons' tracking systems.

In the event of an avalanche, the beacon transmits a victim's location to the other people in his or her party. Those people are then able to locate the victim with their own beacons, use the probe to locate the victim under the snow and use a shovel to dig that person out.

This process implies one of the first rules of winter backcountry safety: don't go alone. It also points to the need for practicing an avalanche rescue.

The stress of responding to a real avalanche can make it difficult for people to react well and follow the rescue process. That is why Thomas encourages people to train in a controlled area like Beacon Basin.

"The more people use their beacon and learn to trust their beacon, the more prepared they are in the backcountry if something goes wrong," he said.

Matt Hartsel, who has been with Steamboat Ski Patrol for six seasons, said many people do not understand the cost of failing to bring an avalanche beacon into the backcountry.

"Some of those people pay with their lives," he said.

He and other patrollers recently conducted avalanche mitigation at the summit of Mount Werner following last week's storm that dumped more than a foot of snow on the mountain overnight.

While Ski Patrol maintains the terrain within the ski resort's boundaries, those who cross out-of-bounds through several gates around the resort assume heightened avalanche dangers.

"The people that use those gates are often unaware of the conditions that they're going into," Thomas said, especially those who aren't from the area.

He said having clear knowledge of the backcountry area that one is navigating is just as important as packing the right equipment.

A report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has issued a level-three avalanche danger on a scale of five for the Steamboat and Flat Tops Wilderness Area zones.

"Dangerous avalanche conditions" require "cautious route finding and conservative decision making," the report said.

Avalanches on dry snow like that around Steamboat are most common on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees, according to avalanche professional and mountain rescue expert Dale Atkins. Steeper terrain does not allow for snow to accumulate in the deep slabs that usually lead to avalanches.

Still, Thomas said that with wetter conditions, avalanches could occur on slopes with a gradient of less than 20 degrees.

"It just depends on snow conditions," he said.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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