Practice using avalanche beacons in real-time at new Howelsen Hill training park

Routt County Search and Rescue members gather under the Barrows chairlift to practice finding buried beacons at the newly established area at Howelsen Hill Ski Area. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With increased avalanche danger, the newly created park to practice searching for beacons at Howelsen Hill Ski Area is especially timely.

The Steamboat Springs and Flat Tops regions of Colorado are currently under an avalanche watch until Friday morning, as a storm system over the area is on track to be the biggest snow producer so far this season. On Friday, the avalanche risk in the area will jump to a four — high danger — at all elevations, the second highest warning level used by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“With a little help from westerly winds, expect to see large natural avalanches ripping out on higher elevations,” Kreston Rohrig, part of the center’s Northern Mountains Group, wrote Thursday about the local risk.

Three skiers died in an avalanche in the San Juan Mountains earlier this week and another was caught in an avalanche Thursday in East Vail, both incidents serving as a reminder of the potential danger lurking in the backcountry.

“It gets brought home obviously every time something like that happens,” Routt County Search and Rescue President Jay Bowman said. “It is just a tragic circumstance, and anything that we can do to prevent those kind of circumstances, it helps the public out, and it helps us out, too.”

The new beacon training park at Howelsen Hill hopes to do just that, allowing people of all levels to practice using their avalanche beacons to find waterproof transmit boxes that have been buried in the snow.

The beacon park, sometimes called a beacon basin, uses a system search and rescue invested in several years ago, and this year, the organization made a concerted effort to get it installed, so people could sharpen their beacon finding skills.

The system is a series of six boxes buried that can be turned on at a control panel. One or more beacons can be turned on at the same time, and finding them will often require people to maneuver around trees and other obstacles.

“A big part of search and rescue’s mission is education,” Bowman said. “Part of that is knowing how to use your equipment. You can own a really fancy beacon, but if you don’t know how to use it, it is not going to do you any good.”

The boxes are in duffel bags filled with rags, so when probing, it would feel more like a person buried beneath the snow. When someone hits the box with their probe, a tone will emit from the control panel.

Located under the Barrows chairlift, the park is somewhat unique as the area mimics an avalanche debris field.

“It is on a slope. A lot of beacon basins that I have seen are in flat territory, so you are certainly getting to practice with your beacon, but not necessarily in the environment that you would actually have to be using it,” Bowman said.

The slope also allows someone to approach a search from above the beacon, mimicking a situation where a skier below them triggers an avalanche and is buried.

“It kind of looks like a little chute where an avalanche might travel down,” said Krista Check-Hill, incident commander for Search and Rescue. “They are not all in there. They are in different areas, but then that way you can practice from being above.”

Bowman said they worked with the city of Steamboat Springs to get the park installed at Howelsen. There is another beacon basin in Steamboat, but it is at the top of the resort. Many backcountry enthusiasts don’t bother to buy a ski pass and having the new park at Howelsen makes practicing more accessible, he said.

“You can just walk literally from the parking lot right there and practice,” Check-Hill said.

On Tuesday night, Search and Rescue volunteers met at the park and practiced finding beacons. Bowman said it will get a lot of use by their team, as well as Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s backcountry athletes.

One thing Bowman said they have noticed is that electronic devices can mess with the beacon signals. He recommends playing with this while practicing at the basin and turning off phones and Bluetooth devices when in the backcountry. Even heated gloves can cause interference with beacons, Bowman said.

Despite skill level, Check-Hill said it is important that people know how to use life-saving equipment, like beacons, and practice it to keep those skills fresh.

“Practice, practice, practice,” Check-Hill repeated. “You can never be good enough at that at the oh-heck moment of an avalanche.”

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