Know Before It Snows 

Avalanche education: Maybe it's just a game

Just think: In Utah, a major avalanche has already been reported this year. Nobody was buried in the rush of snow. But the slide, which occurred in the area of the closed ski resort Alta, was a whopper. Reports from the site say the avalanche was about 200 feet wide and traveled about 1,000 vertical feet to the bottom of the basin.

Oh, and it was human-triggered. Meaning, someone skiing or climbing up and around the chute caused enough disturbance to the early season snow that the slope crumbled. In a big way.

It's the sort of thing that inspires nightmares among backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Such fear also inspires some innovation in the realm of avalanche safety. Still, nothing, experts aver, is as essential as good education. Getting winter backcountry travelers up to speed, or out of the cobwebs on avalanche safety, isn't as sexy as a new board, but doing so will let you live long enough to outlast your equipment.

That's part of the reason Kirk Bachman has been spending lots of time in meetings with Bogus Basin officials lately. Bachman, the owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides and a sales representative for Backcountry Access, a maker of avalanche safety equipment, is hoping to bring a new teaching tool to Boise-area snow fiends. Although details are still preliminary, Bachman says he hopes to have a special practice area for avalanche-beacon users near the Bogus Basin Nordic area.

The premise, first, of an avalanche beacon is simple: The battery-powered units are designed to be worn by backcountry travelers. Using radio frequencies, the unit acts as both receiver and transceiver, allowing skilled users to locate a unit that has been buried along with its owner in a deep snow avalanche. The premise is full of "ifs," chief among them the notion that a user of a backcountry avalanche transceiver has the wherewithal to first, use the avalanche beacon effectively, and second, to use it quickly. Because the force of an avalanche can knock the wind out of a buried skier, and can quickly ice up and suffocate that same skier, time is of the essence.

Enter the so-called "beacon park" that Bachman hopes to locate at Bogus Basin. The park would have a set of buried signal transceivers that an avalanche-beacon owner could use to test their knowledge and practice locating.

"Anybody that has a beacon can go up and practice," Bachman said. "They're a real community service."

They can also drive a rusty beacon-searcher nuts. The beacon parks are designed to re-create the most frustrating and harrowing experience a potential rescuer might face: a multiple-burial situation, in which several people, all wearing beacons sending out distress signals, are buried under an avalanche, awaiting a person's rescue.

"That's usually when chaos ensues," Bachman said. "It does get really complex. People just need more practice in learning how to isolate signals."

Hence the beacon search park. Carrie Douglas, one of the owners of Sun Valley Trekking, said that was the sort of situation that led to the creation of a beacon park behind the Ketchum office of the Sawtooth National Forest. The setup there has as many as half a dozen signal transceivers for practice rescuers to attempt to locate. Of course, Bachman's company, Backcountry Access, doesn't give away the beacon park setup. But the practice parks have caught on in several ski areas around the avalanche-prone West. A partial list of ski areas with such parks includes Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Crystal Mountain, Wash.; Mt. Hood, Ore. and several areas in Colorado.

Bogus Basin's Nordic manager, Peg Havlovick, told BW the resort was interested, but details still need to be worked out. "We think it could be valuable to the community," Havlovick said.

But the beacon parks are just one aspect of the unexciting task of re-education in the world of avalanche safety. If you're among the hordes of people who think they're interested in skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling beyond the groomed slopes of ski areas or trails, then you should be among those signing up for one of the numerous avalanche-awareness courses now taking registrations around Idaho.

Whether it's with Sawtooth Mountain Guides, Sun Valley Trekking or the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, any introductory class in avalanche hazards will take some time. Although primers on avalanche hazards are widespread, most determined skiers will want to sign up for a certification course that takes a full weekend to complete and involves classroom time, on-the-snow time and, more to the point, in-the-snow time.

"The whole idea is that we're trying to eliminate or reduce avalanche accidents," Bachman said. "That's the bottom line."

Douglas, of Sun Valley Trekking, said her outfit is ready to tailor courses to the number of people who are interested. Most trips, she said, involve a trek into one of her company's backcountry yurts for a few days of on-site instruction in snow science and safe travel in avalanche terrain. Her company's classes, she said, are already starting to fill up.

So if you're clicking in to your Nordic skis up at Bogus Basin this year and you happen by someone who looks like they're hunting for a lost contact lens, give them some space. If Bachman has his way, they're practicing for something that skiers hope never happens.

Several courses are taking signups for this winter. The following groups offer avalanche education at all levels: Sawtooth Mountain Guides, at sawtoothguides.com; Sun Valley Trekking, at svtrek.com, and the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, at avalanche.org/~svavctr.

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