30 years of teaching backcountry basics

Mar 23, 2016

A, Aspen Mountain Rescue volunteer instructs students at a beacon station on top of Ajax earlier this winter.
Credit Alycin Bektesh / Aspen Public Radio News

Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) is a volunteer run collective that’s existed for decades. Along with assisting law enforcement in search and rescue missions year round, they offer educational components about backcountry and mountain survival.

Aspen Public Radio’s Alycin Bektesh joined in during their flagship education course — a two-day avalanche safety and awareness workshop.

13-year-old Tommy Mcatamney attended the workshop with his father, Ken.

“I’ve learned a lot about being able to see avalanches and being able to see how it happens,” said Mcatamney.


The training prioritizes terrain awareness over avalanche survival. You get about 15 minutes of breathing time buried under snow. For the volunteer rescue team to reach you they need to learn that you are in trouble, assemble at MRA headquarters near the airport, devise an action plan and trek into the backcountry. That means most missions are body recovery — not life saving expeditions.


“Colorado is a very very dangerous area to play in the backcountry,” said Doug Paley, training officer for MRA.

Paley has been with the organization more than 15 years.

The 50 volunteers of Aspen Mountain Rescue describe the membership as a family. Even after moving away, volunteers came back to help with the annual avalanche course.
Credit Alycin Bektesh / Aspen Public Radio News

The tenures of most volunteers are decades long. Everyone describes the relationship among the 50 or so members as a family.


Day one is classroom-based. Participants learn to identify slope angles and terrain traps. Even a 10-foot slide on a little hill can be deadly if it buries a skier — or rams them into a pine tree.  Participants are also instructed to use emergency beacons and probes to quickly track down an avalanche victim.

Day two is on-location on the trails behind Aspen Mountain.

Stations are set up allowing students to assess conditions by digging a snowpit and identifying the separate layers of snow that can facilitate slides. They are taught “strategic shoveling” — a team system of digging out a victim from the side instead of the top.

MRA was established in 1965; the avalanche awareness course began in the mid 1980s. David Swersky has been part of the team since 1980.

“In January 1988 there was a fairly large avalanche above the Taggart Hut that unfortunately three locals lost their lives in it,” he said. “That year attendance jumped to about 100 people and it’s been about that ever since.”  


Course participants learn strategic shoveling - the most efficient way to unbury an avalanche victim.
Credit Alycin Bektesh / Aspen Public Radio News

With the increase in popularity of skinning and splitboards, locals and tourists increasingly depart from groomed areas into the side and backcountry. Modern day equipment like consumer grade beacons and avalanche airbags can create a false sense of security.


Colorado is the deadliest state for avalanche victims. By Far. Averaging 270 deaths a year. The next closest state is Alaska with 145.


In a debriefing session at the Sundeck, course leaders asked for feedback from participants.


Alison Elliott and her husband attended for the second time this year as a way to refresh their skills. She said the price and convenience of the class is helpful for those who can’t take a semester-long class, and serves as a reminder that resources like the Colorado Avalanche Center can help skiers make wise decisions.


“You really got to take advantage of it, otherwise it would be a sad moment for your family to realize that  — ‘oh it's a Darwin award. That's what we get?’”


Avalanche course participants trek in the back country behind Aspen Mountain as part of their training from Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Credit Alycin Bektesh / Aspen Public Radio News