Sometimes — and more often than he’d like — the classes that Brian Pollock teaches on avalanche awareness turn into group therapy sessions.
Pollock, the director of education for the non-profit Friends of Berthoud Pass, teaches winter sports enthusiasts, mostly backcountry skiers, how to avoid avalanches.
Some come because they want to try backcountry skiing and have heard that avalanche training is a good idea. Others have skied for years and finally gave in to their spouses’ harping, like a biker finally agreeing to wear a helmet. But there are others who go because they’ve had a close call or worse.
“They may have had tragedy in their past,” Pollock said. “A lot of people share stories with us, the things they’ve seen and witnessed. All backcountry travelers have had their brushes.”
That includes Pollock, who one winter was driving up to Loveland Pass on an icy road, crawling along, when out of the corner of his eye he saw his friend in the passenger seat cover his head.
A slide slammed into his truck.
The snow rocked his vehicle, but the avalanche was a powder cloud, nothing more, and Pollock had a story for his class.
Pollock, in fact, uses many personal stories to help teach the class. He wants his students to learn from them. This year, unfortunately, he has plenty to choose from.
In the winter season 2016-2017, the Colorado Avalanche Information Centerdocumented 37 people who were caught in avalanches by the end of January. By that same time the following season, there were 13.
By the end of this January, 58 people were caught, and those are just the ones the CAIC knows about. Out of those, two were killed, said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the center.
Those two deaths — and two more with Colorado connections at New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley — shook the winter sports world. Avalanche teachers and forecasters had hoped that more people were paying attention, and they had numbers that gave them reason to hope: Avalanche deaths in the United States were down nearly 10 percent in the last decade compared with the previous one, according to the CAIC. Colorado had 12 fatalities in the past four years, from the winter season ending in 2015 to the season ending in 2018, according to the CAIC. Last year, three people in Colorado died in a slide. The year before only one died.
But it’s been a dangerous season so far.
“If anything, because of how the snowpack has developed over this season, this year is more dangerous than previous years,” Lazar said.
Early snow developed into a weak foundation after dry, warm weather in mid-November, and the storms that followed built stiff layers of snow on top. Those weak layers weren’t enough to hold the heavy snow the mountains received this year.
For years, avalanche forecasters and instructors have called for the need for more education in the hopes that the growing number of those who hike, ski and snowmobile in the backcountry will take a class on how to recognize when conditions are ripe for an avalanche. And yet, avalanche education isn’t always enough, as those who know how to dig pits to asses snow conditions, stay off 35-degree slopes and read a forecast still get swept away, Lazar said.
Some avalanche instructors believe the human factor may be to blame for at least some of the accidents. The human factor, Pollock and others said, occurs in all forms. Just like the climbers of fourteeners who ignore the distant rumble of thunder, there are voices whispering mental shortcuts to backcountry skiers who tell themselves the slope is safe when they see another skier’s tracks down a mountain.
Recreationists of all seasons also fall for relying too much on an experienced friend, or they pay too much attention to what adventurers call the sunk cost, such as the miles on your car, the money it cost to get there and the time off work, and refuse to turn around even when conditions call for it, Lazar said.
“One of the things we push is trying to get rid of your ego,” Pollock said. “You have to be honest with yourself and the group you are with, and make your best decision to keep you and your group safe.”
Then why do it?
So why would anyone ski on a slope that has even a small chance of sliding?
“It’s awesome,” said Doug Maiwurm, education director of the Colorado Mountain Club, who doesn’t backcountry ski himself. “Think of your best day skiing. You probably experienced untouched, inspiring snow that you shredded, a line that was fresh powder. It’s really fun. If you’re a really good skier, there’s a strong draw to that.”
That draw is why Alex Honnold climbs El Capitan without ropes in the hit documentary “Free Solo,” or why Roger Bannister ran a 4-minute mile despite others thinking his heart would explode.
“It’s a unique experience that not everyone gets to have,” Maiwurm said.
Those experiences aren’t as unique as they once were, however, and that’s because of a few factors.
There are more people in Colorado, and they are using equipment that makes it easier to get there, whether that’s skis, snowshoes or even snowmobiles that are far more powerful than they were a decade ago, Maiwurm said. There’s also enough information online to educate anyone on how to reach those places. All of that makes it much easier for people to get into difficult and avalanche-prone terrain.
“It’s just way easier for people to get out into the backcountry now,” Maiwurm said, “but it’s still hard to get the experience and knowledge that comes from being out there. Experience takes time.”
That experience is crucial, given that learning about layers in a classroom, while important, can only go so far, Maiwurm said.
“You can dig a pit, and you can think it’s OK, but it’s like sailing on top of the ocean. You don’t know what’s below you,” Maiwurm said.
That reality partly changed the way instructors teach avalanche courses. They’ve spent years teaching people how to use forecasts, but now they emphasize what they call “repeatable decision making,” Maiwurm said. That means paying unwavering attention to the snowpack all day instead of just at the start.
Instructors also talk about those human factors that can trap skiers faster than avalanches.
Perhaps the most important preparation, Lazar said, doesn’t have a lot to do with gear. Those in a group should make a decision together about whether to go out at all, he said. They should talk about fresh snow, and how conditions look, follow the forecast and weigh the risks.
“If you decide that ahead of time, you’re much less likely not to go,” Lazar said.
The primary goal, Pollock said, is still avalanche avoidance, by using the forecast, knowing the terrain and listening for warnings, such as the “whomp” sound that can sometimes precede an avalanche.
“If you hear that whomp,” Pollock said, “it will scare the hell out of you.”
The hope is that more decide to take a more advanced class after the basics Pollock teaches in 15-minute presentations or a beginner’s course. He calls those beginner classes a stepping stone to understanding the snow as well as themselves. Those classes will help them recognize when they are letting their emotions lead them into trouble, and possibly avoid it.
As an example, Maiwurm recalls an emotional decision of his own several years ago with a friend. He hoped to do an early season spring climb in the North Cascades National Park in Washington. They hiked into a snowy basin, set up camp and prepared for a fun day.
That next day, they did a few tests of their own, and the snow just didn’t feel right. Maiwurm thought about how he’d planned the trip for weeks, took the weekend off and spent money to get there. He thought about what he would tell his friends and the photo they would take on the top. He wanted to do something cool.
So with a sigh, they turned around, made it out, and later the two swapped stories over a beer in a bar.
Things to know
- A snowpack, like onions, has layers. Snow piles up on a weak layer of snow, or in some cases the ground, and causes a slide. That’s why avalanches are more likely to occur after a big snowstorm.
- An avalanche needs a trigger: a big snowfall, an animal or, of course, a human.
- The vast majority of avalanches occur on slopes that are 30-45 degrees. Slopes with that angle can collect snow but hang on to it tenuously until something helps it slough off.
- Signs of an impending avalanche include cracks that shoot out from your feet, a “whomp” sound, or when you feel the snow collapsing, almost like a floor in a haunted house.
- If you step out of your snowmobile or skis, and you don’t sink through the snow, you’re standing on a slab. Slab avalanches cause more damage and kill more people.
- Forecasts are available for 10 different zones, which include mountain ranges and areas in Colorado where those ranges are located, all winter every day from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Use them. Sometimes they are available for days in advance.
- Travel with an avalanche beacon, shovel, an airbag backpack that will give you space to breathe if you are buried, and a partner, as your chances of digging yourself out of a pack are low, even if you are awake.
- Get the forecast, get the gear and get the training on how to use both. Go to Colorado.gov/caic or avalanche.org for more information. Courses are offered through those websites, at the Colorado Mountain Club (cmc.org) or friends of Berthoud Pass (berthoudpass.org).