When Face Shots Turn Fickle

Avalanche 1

Ticket counters, lines at ticket counters, lifts, lines at lifts, catwalks, snowplowers, predictable terrain. Don't get me wrong, I love groomers and I love ski resorts, but I've always been longing for a bit more from my ski experience. I've raced, thrown big air, torn my knees and back apart in the bumps, coached, instructed - I'm even known to attempt a rail slide every now and again. You'd think that with all this excitement I'd be content to stay inbounds. I was, until I had my first real taste of the backcountry. Now I've acquired an insatiable hunger for the steep and deep found only off-piste.

I recently attended an avalanche clinic with one of Colorado's most savvy backcountry experts: Scott Toepfer of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Scott, joined by Mongo and Eph of the Vail ski patrol, initiated a small crew of us in the ways of beacon use, snowpack assessment, route selection, and avalanche rescue.

We performed a mock rescue in which three dummies - one with a beacon and two without - were buried beneath the snow. Using techniques learned in a prior lesson, we assessed the situation and started homing in on and probing for the bodies. My partner, Mike, and I miraculously found two of the three victims in less than five minutes. The other group didn't fare so well - they lost everyone.

The backcountry is a beautiful and treacherous place. There must be millions of panoramas in North America alone where you can stand atop a tempting 40-degree pitch of endless, unbroken powder. The snow beckons to you: "Come ski me. Come ski me." And it looks harmless enough: a deep layer of static fluff. But the powder and beauty can lull you into complacency. Once you click into your bindings and drop off the rim, you're at nature's mercy.

Complacency in the backcountry kills numerous people throughout the world every year. Without prior knowledge, preparation, and proper equipment, you might as well bring a lethal injection along on your next backcountry trip. Take a course, get outfitted, and the next time you stand with a couple of buddies atop the sweetest stretch of powder you've ever seen, think about what might be going on beneath that tranquil surface before it slides out from under you.

In Colorado, contact the CAIC for info on courses and current conditions at 303-275-5360 or http://www.caic.state.co.us/index.html. Otherwise, check out http://www.avalanche.org/~aaap/ for domestic and international avalanche information.