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Avalanche class opens up new terrain

Mountain Trip teaches classes in the Ophir Town Hall in San Miguel County, Colorado.
Gavin McGough
Mountain Trip teaches classes in the Ophir Town Hall in San Miguel County, Colorado.

As more and more skiers are trekking up into the backcountry, first-timers are turning to avalanche courses to learn about snow science, risk management, and best practices to protect themselves and other skiers.

Conditions are forbidding this Sunday morning in Ophir.

The wind is setting off small cyclones of snow along the roadside, and at the end of the Box Canyon, the pale cover of cloud makes it difficult to tell where the mountains end and the sky begins.

But inside the town hall a dozen skiers, undaunted, are planning their day’s backcountry tour.

Projected on a TV screen are different maps of the Ophir Basin marking potential avalanche terrain and crossed over with possible paths for skinning up through the snow.

It’s the third and final day of an Avalanche 1 Course taught through a collaboration between the Silverton Avalanche School and the guiding service Mountain Trip.

Many here are first time backcountry skiers.

Student Nick Crosby says he was drawn to the sport, but took the class so he could enter the backcountry more prepared.

“I’ve grown up skiing on resorts and I realized I could combine the fun of getting out into the off-piste stuff that you do in the summer, but you can ski it — and it's even better skiing! It lit up something inside me,” said Crosby.

“I saw this as a prerequisite before entering the backcountry, laying the groundwork now so I can get out into the backcountry this season and seasons to come.”

Dylan May adds the class has been a way of getting a baseline of information before entering potentially dangerous terrain.

“Really, what this class does is, it doesn't give you access to the gnarliest terrain out there. It does not bar you from getting hurt in any way. It just gives you the tools to make the right decisions about where you go and when you go,” said May.

Course Instructor and avalanche educator Chris Dickson says interest in the backcountry exploded in 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic

“And that was largely due to the ski resorts closing, but that happened in early March and there was still a lot of snow left on the slopes. And people realized ‘Hey I still want to go skiing and there’s plenty of winter left. How do I do that? Oh, I get a backcountry setup that allows me to skin up the hill and ski down it,’” said Dickson.

Now, three years later, that interest has held strong, and Dickson says newcomers are reviving the tradition.

“And, you know, backcountry skiing used to be a thing that a small group of predominantly white men used to do in the sixties and the seventies, and that came from the history of World War II and the Tenth Mountain Division…but, it’s evolved into a sport that’s all encompassing and its growing really rapidly sort of like climbing has," he said.

"And it’s important to recognize, if you’re skiing in avalanche terrain, your hobby – your leisure activity – is something that is potentially deadly. And that’s where my job comes in, trying to help people stay safe."

On the topic of risk, student Indika Young says she was aware of the danger posed by the backcountry when she turned to the avalanche class for guidance.

“I feel equally as nervous about the terrain and the conditions out there,” said Young.

“But I feel like I know when it might be ok to step out and when I should really focus on maybe skiing the resort, or doing something else on a day that has really high avalanche danger.”

The tools used in avalanche safety are extensive, ranging from shovels and probes to radios, mapping software, transceivers, and other technology that can be used to collect information from different groups of skiers, and allow skiers to communicate when they're out in the field.

Dickson says all this can be overwhelming, but students catch on quickly.

“It’s awesome to see the progression from someone on day one, and their level of understanding, and then on day three we go on a full-day tour, and then to see them in action, setting the skin track, making decisions, making observations, talking the talking — and there’s a lot of jargon involved in snow and avalanche world — it's pretty amazing the amount of growth that can happen in a three day course. So that’s pretty cool,” said Dickson.

“And I think people walk away thinking ‘Wow, I got a ton of new information and I learned a lot!’ and sometimes that can be almost too much information but inevitably it turns into a good foundation they can build on.” 

Student Mollie Theiss agrees.

She says the class has made her feel both more independent, and closer to a growing backcountry community.

“Especially here it can be a daunting and dangerous thing, but knowledge is power and I feel excited to have taken it into my own hands and know what to do on my own and be able to contribute; to be an asset instead of a liability,” said Theiss.

As this is day three of the course, students gear up and head out into the wind towards new terrain, and maybe even some fresh tracks.

This story from KOTO was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Gavin McGough is a reporter at KOTO in Telluride.