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Avalanche clinic in Steamboat teaches science, safety

Part-time Steamboat Springs resident Rick Casey measures the angle of a slope Saturday on Rabbit Ears Pass. Twenty-one students participated in a one-day avalanche clinic field session sponsored by Ski Haus
Matt Stensland
Colorado Avalanche Information Center Deputy Director Brian Lazar conducts Saturday’s avalanche information clinic on Rabbit Ears Pass. “Any layer by itself is not bad. It’s how it stacks up,” he explained to the 21 students at the clinic.Matt Stensland

— On Valentine’s Day six years ago, Clark resident Alethea Stone’s future husband gave her a not-so-subtle suggestion to put down the snow­­board and take up back­­country skiing.

“Without even asking, my husband got me tele gear,” Stone said Saturday while working in a snow pit on Rabbit Ears Pass, trying to learn the science behind avalanches.

Stone was one of 21 students participating in the one-day avalanche clinic field session sponsored by Ski Haus, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Steamboat Ski Patrol and Ortovox, a manufacturer of avalanche safety equipment.



The annual Steamboat Sp­­rings clinic has been taking place for more than 20 years, and is meant to provide some basic knowledge on avalanche safety.

“Up until now, I feel like I’ve relied too much on others, and I felt like it was time to take some responsibility for myself and the people I’m skiing with,” Stone said.



After Saturday’s clinic, the students knew how to read and understand avalanche forecasts and reports issued by the CAIC. The avalanche danger is listed as moderate in Steamboat and throughout Colorado. Large amounts of snow early in the season created a low potential for instability originating near weak layers near the base of the snowpack.

“Low probability events with very scary consequences,” said CAIC Deputy Director Brian Lazar, who was teaching Satur­­day’s clinic.

Lazar and the students spent most of the morning in front of a long snow pit that offered a layered snapshot of 150 centimeters of snow. Lazar said the surface was another 50 centimeters below.

“Really deep snow for early season,” he said.

Using his fist, fingers and a mechanical pencil, Lazar demonstrated how to look for the “weak layers in the avalanche sandwich.”

“Any layer by itself is not bad,” Lazar said. “It’s how it stacks up.”

Using a saw, Lazar then demonstrated a compression tests using a column of snow 30 centimeters long on each side and placed a shovel on top. After tapping it three times with his hand, the first weak layer was illustrated as the top 2 feet of the column suddenly shifted.

“What’s important is if you get a failure and how it failed,” Lazar said.

The avalanche education was all new information for Bill Thacker, a Tennessean who is working at Steamboat Ski Area this winter. Thacker said he is a longtime rescue volunteer and holds his master rescue technician certification. He said he is considering becoming a Routt County Search and Rescue volunteer.

“This is definitely essential knowledge that a person needs to have,” Thacker said.

North Routt Community Char­­ter School teacher Brandon La­­Chance said he planned to pass on the things he learned Saturday to his students, who are exposed to the backcountry as part of the school’s outdoor education curriculum.

“They live in the snow but don’t understand it,” LaChance said. “This is a good way to understand it.”


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