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To ski or not to ski

December 31st, 2015 7:37pm - Posted By: markus beck

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From the Boulder Weekly

February 16th, 2015 12:49am


Markus Beck’s made a living out of pushing boundaries, but now those boundaries are pushing back

By Steven Grossman, Boulder Weekly 


Markus Beck describes himself as a “risk manager,” and if you glanced at his resume, it’s clear he manages plenty of it. As an avalanche safety instructor and the owner of a mountain guide service, risk is often the one thing Beck can’t avoid. His company, the Boulder-based Alpine World Ascents, has, in many ways, made risk into a business — or rather, the mitigation of risk. But with the U.S. Forest Service limiting the number of active permits allowed on forest lands, teaching other people how to manage risks in the backcountry might just be the part of his business he has to bury. 

From an early age, Beck, who grew up in Switzerland, not only became acquainted with the beauty of nature, but also with its unpredictability. He’d hiked just off a resort in Davos, Switzerland, skiing an area he was well acquainted with that could be reached with minimal skinning. He’d heard the ski resort’s guides discussing ski cutting — a method used by ski patrollers and helicopter ski guides where you trigger an avalanche “on your own terms,” ensuring you have speed built up and an island of safety should the slope fracture — and Beck thought he’d have a go at it. Beck had noticed wind slabs in the area, and while attempting to ski cut the slope, he was caught in an avalanche. Lacking the momentum to avoid the slide, he clung to a cluster of rocks that had formed a small cliff. The avalanche just shallow enough for him to wade it out. It was a wake up call he hasn’t slept off since. He’d gotten lucky, but a backcountry skier can’t live on luck. 

“I think it took decades, really, for me to realize what happened to me back then,” Beck says. “This stuff actually hurts, and can kill you, and I didn’t experience that. … The risk perception is so far off with some people, particularly that [younger] age group.” 

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there were 265 avalanche fatalities in Colorado from 1950 to 2014 — 127 more fatalities than the nearest state, Alaska, which recorded 138 deaths over the same period. Of the total number of avalanche deaths in the U.S. between 1950 and 2014, 240 were backcountry tourers. 

Despite the near-death experience in Davos, Beck didn’t shy away from the potentially fatal realities of his passion — he became fascinated by them.

After taking the numerous avalanche safety courses in Switzerland required during his ski instructor training in 1989, Beck moved to the U.S. in 1997. He made his living teaching P.E. at Foothills Academy in Wheat Ridge. When an opportunity to spend two months in the Himalayas came, he convinced the school to give him the time off in part by promising to visit and observe schools in Nepal. Those school visits would make as big a difference in the course of his life as the mountaineering did. 

He set off to the Himalayas with Freddie “Hot Dog” Snalam, whose famous hot dog stand still operates on the Pearl Street Mall, planning to snowboard Tharpu Chuli, or Tent Peak, and climb Hiunchuli, both in Nepal’s Himalayas. The two quickly realized that the conditions on Tent Peak were less than hospitable, the summit having melted out, dashing their plans to snowboard from the peak. They climbed up via a glacier that led to an exposed knife-edge snow ridge, and by snowboarding down from just below the ridge they were able to accomplish a partial descent. Before ascending Hiunchuli, they realized the information they’d received regarding the difficulty of the climb had been a bit faulty. In addition to them lacking the proper climbing gear to conquer the difficult face, mid-altitude cumulous clouds began to blanket the area, thickening and dropping rapidly, indicating fast-approaching weather changes. They decided to bail out. 

Two days later, the range was buried under 4 feet of snow, with avalanches running down all the way to the trails feeding in to the area. 

“We would have either gotten caught in an avalanche, or stuck,” Beck says.

Although weather conditions had prevented Beck and Snalam from completing most of their goals for the range, Beck gained something he hadn’t expected from the trip. 

 “I did visit a lot of schools, particularly the ones in mountain areas,” Beck says. “It was a phenomenal experience, and what really struck me was how different school is in Nepal — particularly the mountain areas of Nepal — [versus] the Western countries. There were kids that walked three hours in frickin’ flip-flops, through any weather, just to sit down on some very uncomfortable wood benches to listen to a dude who barely can read himself … and then three hours back home again. … It just struck me that they were so supportive of each other and helpful with the little kids, the big kids. Kind of what you think it should be.”

Watching how children lived and acted with so little in Nepal, and comparing that to his experiences teaching children who had so much in the U.S., Beck found himself no longer motivated to be a part of the educational system in the States. Beck says he was fascinated that, despite their age, younger Nepali kids were actually motivated to be quiet, to listen, to glean all they could out of what little they were offered, all while taking nothing for granted. He felt that mindset wasn’t shared by many of the young students he’d encountered in the States. 

When he returned to the U.S. from Nepal, Beck gave up teaching at Foothills. Having taken courses on Berthoud Pass and with a Swiss guide out of Crested Butte, Beck received his American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 3 certification. Following his “graduation,” Beck was asked by then-owner of Crested Butte Mountain Guides Jean Pavillard to teach the Level 1 courses for the company.

He began working full time as an avalanche safety course instructor, as well as a national and international guide for mountain sports, then shifted his focus to developing new strategies for avalanche safety. In the process, he discovered a new passion for the teaching. 

“I just love being outside,” Beck says. “I think it was definitely a passion for the mountains and to get more involved, to be outside more, the sense of adventure [and] sharing that with people and enabling people to find the courage to push it a little bit more than they’re comfortable, to learn more about the mountains and survival and [how to] get better at it.” 

Sifting through new ways to bolster the teaching methods for his avalanche safety courses isn’t the only obstacle Beck has been attempting to address. He’s also trying to decipher why he’s no longer able to offer courses on certain areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service. In order to teach avalanche safety courses on federally protected lands, Beck is required to obtain a commercial use permit. But there’s a moratorium for permits for Berthoud Pass, which falls primarily in the Clear Creek Ranger District of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, that has stopped him from offering the courses. Beck says the pass is not only conveniently accessible, but offers some of the more avalanche-prone terrain in Colorado, making it ideal for avalanche safety courses.  

Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, Beck says, rather than focusing on properly assessing who should receive the commercial use permits required to teach courses on publicly protected lands, the U.S. Forest Service is restricting access. 

Beck had previously operated through Crested Butte Mountain Guides, which held a permit for Berthoud Pass and had contracted him as an instructor for the courses. As an independent instructor, he’s without that kind of access.

“I personally think it’s valid concerns that are played out completely wrong and ineffectively,” he says. “Wrong, because they target professionals and prevent them from doing their job and prevent professionals from providing valuable services to the public, and ineffectively, because it does not address the valid concerns of land managers.”

The forest service splits lands into compartments, or zones, and although there are currently six active commercial use permits in the Berthoud Pass area, additional permits are being withheld until a carrying capacity study is completed, says Penny Wu, a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service who’s stationed in the Clear Creek Ranger District and handles the majority of commercial use permits for Berthoud Pass. The study, which commenced in 2011, will determine whether the number of permits for the Berthoud Pass zone can and should be adjusted.  

“We do not have a projected end date. The forest is very close to finishing [the survey],” Wu says. “We know how important this is and we know there’s competitive interest stuff there that would be interested in applying for specific permits if we have the capacity.”

 The limited number of permits prevents people from taking courses or participating in backcountry touring with guides of their choice, Beck says. The exclusive access also allows certain businesses to use areas that should be accessible to everyone and he argues that’s creating a monopolistic system that doesn’t address the real issues. He sees reasonable concerns in questions over liability and environmental protection, he says, but isn’t sure limiting guides’ access is the best route to manage those and other concerns.

“The guiding industry is 1 percent of the public use of the land, so they’re really only managing 1 percent, and it’s probably that 1 percent that not only treats nature in the way it should, but teaches our clients how to do that, but we’re the ones being excluded,” he says.

As long as permit holders remain in “good standing,” meaning the business is able to meet requirements such as carrying the proper amount of insurance and paying annual fees to the government on time, they can renew their permits. Commercial service permits cannot be transferred between locations or business owners. A permit only re-enters the pool if a business owner decides not to provide the service that required that permit anymore.

“It’s a competitive process, for sure,” Wu says. 

Due to the limited number of outfitters allowed in the Berthoud Pass area, Beck says, he only has access to sub-par terrain. He acknowledges that he could teach courses in other locations, such as Rocky Mountain National Park — where he’s taught courses in the past — but he says there’s too much traffic as a result of limited access to other areas, and less-than-ideal conditions that defeat the purpose of hands-on avalanche training. 

“I think it is a very difficult situation, and as a land manager you have to protect the resources, but yet you have to make it available. That is a tough job,” Beck says. “Maybe what has worked 30 years ago or so, it’s just no longer adequate. There are way more people pushing in to the backcountry, whether it’s winter or summers. There’s way more demand for professional instruction, or just being able to pick a guide of your choice and then take off and have a good time in the mountains. … I would personally like to see the land managers and the guiding, or the commercial, side of outdoor industry sync more together and problem solve and actually making a real difference.”  

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com


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Current Snowpack Conditions

December 20th, 2014 8:50pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

 STATE OF THE SNOWPACK (Front Range, Summit & Vail, Steamboat) – 12/21/14

Ullr has heard our prayers and he is delivering the white gold! Perhaps our worship has been a bit too intense because the incoming snow storm will be overly generous. But lets back up first….


Chapter 1:

Early snow in October had the eager-beavers ride the backcountry. While the pics looked good on Facebook, reports of core shots, bruises and in rare cases worse were the norm. A grizzly cold spell followed. Soon, this early snow turned mostly into facets. When milder weather followed, sunny slopes soon melted out again, but where the snow managed to stick around, so did the facets.

Chapter 2:

Mid/late November, cold weather and copious amounts of snow hit our mountains. Again, the eager-beavers took to riding the backcountry, their pictures looked even better with less reports of collateral damage. The first slides of the season occurred and a few folks got a happy ending. At this point, we had a classic Colorado early winter snow structure consisting of faceted snow at the ground and a slab sitting on top of that.

Chapter 3:

The subsequent unusually mild weather did its darnest to strengthen the snowpack: significant settlement occurred, basal facets started rounding and bonding, reports of instability signs and avalanches became more and more rare, danger levels reached low, backcountry riders took to the steep and adventurous lines. But… Not all instabilities vanished (they instead became “dormant”) and not all changes favored snow stability (much also changed at/near the snow surface, though not a current concern) setting the stage for the next storm.

Chapter 4:

December 20. The incoming storm is on a NW track, has all the ingredients (deep airmass with ample moisture, associated cold front, winds for orographic lifting) to be a powerful storm. Stoke is super high in anticipation of the forecasted 2-3ft of snow over the next few days. High stoke and rapid loading, this alone is a recipe for trouble, but when considering the current state of the snowpack, trouble would be putting it mildly. Lets take a closer look:

N facing slopes. Below treeline, these slopes consist of 40-60cm of mostly faceted snow, a slab is either missing or not well developed. Around treeline, a fairly well developed but discontinuous slab sits on top of faceted snow. The slab’s hardness and thickness varies quite a bit. Surface and Near-Surface faceting is widespread but somewhat discontinuous. Above treeline, snow cover varies from shallow/devoid to thick/hard; wind protected slopes may hold some powdery snow.

E facing slopes. Below/around treeline, one or two thin and non-supportive melt-freeze crusts are detectable, faceted snow is found around those crusts. These crusts are widespread but not continuous. At/near the ground, rounding facets make the foundation. The slab sitting on top of all that is most pronounced around treeline, its hardness and thickness varies quite a bit. Surface and Near-Surface faceting can be observed though varies significantly.

S facing slopes. Below treeline, the snow depth is thinnest and the “crunchiest”. Around treeline, a well developed melt-freeze crust often supports a standing person’s weight (with boards on the feet), a person downhill riding often punches through. There is a pronounced difference at the interface of the old snow (well consolidated, “stout” and hard) and the most recent new and wind transported snow (very soft, “creamy” in spots). Another, thinner, crust further down in the snowpack can be found. The basal facets show significant rounding and even some clustering. Surface and Near-Surface faceting is very spotty.

W facing slopes, all elevations. Not much snow in general expect where cross-loading occurred. Here, the snow is mostly hard, rather shallow, basal snow is made up with facets.

Sounds complicated? Well, it is. The 2-3ft of new storm snow will fall on a complicated snowpack and its implications will vary. Bottomline is, a block of snow (10x10x10ft) weighs in at around 500lbs. With that in mind, it’s easy to anticipate that the avalanche danger will quickly raise and is likely to reach warning criteria by Monday evening/Tuesday morning. Re-define your mindset to account for the increasing avalanche danger. The finer, complicated details of the snow instabilities can be anticipated to some extent but are best left to be observed as the storm moves out, the uncertainty about the complicated snowpack will need to be re-assessed piece by piece. Until confidence into snowpack assessment is regained, it will be wise to choose least aggressive terrain. For now, enjoy Ullr’s gift from the safety of low angle terrain!


A word for the situation in the Steamboat area: an omni-present very strong rain crust up to ~11k elevation is buried under 1-2ft of fluffy snow. Riding conditions are excellent, the extremely supportive rain crust provides reliable protection against core shots. On the downside, facets have developed below that crust and are also starting to grow on top of that crust. A skier triggered slide on a steep road cut (SS-D0.5) propagated 15m and slid on top of that crust – a sign of greater things to come! The Steamboat area will fare very well with this NW-track storm, anticipating around 2ft of snow by Tuesday morning. With temperatures on the mild side at the beginning of the storm, a lot of new weight will be added in a fairly short time period. We have a bed surface (the crust), a slab (the old and new snow), a weak layer (the facets above the crust) – I wouldn’t be surprised to see avalanches being triggered on even slightly below 30dgr slopes, running faster and further than normal. And to top it off, this crust/facet combo might stick around to cause avalanche troubles for some time to come. Heads up over there!

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Special Trip - spot available (limited time)

August 11th, 2014 9:30am - Posted By: Markus Beck




White Cap Alpine Lodge is in the South Chilcoten Mountains in British Columbia, not far North of Whistler/Blackcomb and known for massive snowfall, nicknamed "chilcotin cold smoke". Open glades, glaciers and high alpine peaks surround the lodge and are immediately accessible right out the door. The broad variety of available terrain provides many and convenient options when dealing with inclement weather, touchy avalanche conditions and tired legs - no excuses not to ski!


Markus Beck, Swiss-American AMGA/IFMGA certified ski & mountain guide with Alpine World Ascents is leading this trip together with his good friend and fellow IFMGA guide Till Kramann. We serve up 8 days of skitouring in an authentic mountain environment with unmatched terrain! With two such experienced guides working exclusively for you, we are able to truly cater to your skills and interests.


Skiers on this trip have good fitness and are strong skiers with previous backcountry experience capable of comfortably skiing moderate to steep slopes (min 35 degrees) in a variety of snow conditions with a light backpack. Because there are 2 guides, we will have the ability to split up into separate groups if needed.


Fly-in and out by heli. Comfortable and cozy, it has everything you expect from a modern yet rustic mountain home, including low occupancy rooms, hot showers, sauna and ample electric outlets. A cook prepares tasty and plentyful meals, served in a nice dining room. 


Sign up before Sept 23 $2450, thereafter $2550.

--> deadline is November 23, but spots are already starting to fill !!!

Cost includes: 8 days of skitouring, 2 experienced IFMGA guides, accommodation and 3 meals per day at the Lodge, heli transport to/from the lodge, avalanche safety equipment as needed (not included: alcoholic beverages at the Lodge, heli-assisted skitouring, travel to/from Pemberton, accommodation and meals other than at the Lodge).


Contact us for more information and to sign up.

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Current snow & avalanche conditions

March 17th, 2014 3:11pm - Posted By: markus beck

 Current Snow & Avy conditions for the CO mountains

For what seems to be an eternity, the CAIC (along with the other avy forecast centers) have been sounding off the alarm bells in regards to the ongoing threat of Deep Persistent Slabs (DPS). Something like this: "Instabilities deep down the snowpack still lurk. While these have become unlikely to trigger, if they are, such an avalanche will be unsurvivable. Instabilities in the upper snowpack due to new snow, wind loading or warming can result in small to large avalanches, which could be the trigger for a very large and deadly DPS".

The weak layer associated with DPS is basal depth hoar. Despite a deep snowpack and the resulting low temperature gradient (which I consistently have been observing since early February), these facets have mostly resisted rounding. Here and there, these depth hoar facets have sintered (aka “necking; small icy connections between grains”) making them appear stronger. There are two column tests that may provide insight on the state of the (in)stability of these deep persistent layers: the Deep Tap test (and the “Deep Extended Column test”, an inofficial variation of the regular ECT) and the Propagation Saw test. However, in recent weeks I have found both to provide inconsistent results which made me qualify these results as “false stable” – the reason why I just don’t believe those repeatable results indicating good stability, is the looks of the snow structure: In the upper snowpack, instabilities were due to new snow, wind loading and warming but were short lived. In the mid snowpack, there is a widespread formidably strong and thick slab and avy activity in this part of the snowpack has been near zero. In the lower snowpack, the widespread large depth hoar near the ground is very prevalent and weak; this is the layer we keep hearing of when one of those rare but massive avalanches break loose, killing what’s in its path. This snow structure is akin to a solidly constructed house built on weak soil- if the foundation fails, everything fails!

I have to admit: As the avy danger situation started to transition from Persistent Slab to Deep Persistent Slab, it took me a while to figure out what exactly was happening. I became conflicted with the blatantly obvious weak snow structure and continuous lack of instability signs. In my defense, by early February I started to reign in my terrain selection to very conservative choices, skiing predominantly 30degrees or less- mostly because of the uncertainty in my lack of understanding the situation, but also intuitively. If I occasionally did ski steeper terrain, it was based on very specific parameters unique to that slope. Eventually, the puzzle pieces came together and the picture became clear that we were dealing with DPS. As is state of the art in risk management, where situations almost never are “black and white” and protocols being mere prompts to re-think and adapt, pattern recognition is the key to manage avalanche risk. In the case of DPS, this is very difficult and even the best professionals amongst us struggle to effectively deal with this problem.

How to recognize a DPS:

<> Snow structure- a well developed faceted layer at/near the ground under a strong and thick layer.

<> Instability signs- very few if any instability signs indicate a looming threat, activity.

<> Activity pattern- like all other avalanche types, DPS activity peaks in cycles; but instead of an increase in instability signs, a DPS cycle is announced by a subtle increase of avalanche activity.  Its typical that this weakness becomes inactive for some time, just to re-awaken all of a sudden for a repeated time.

<> Predictive clues- DPS activity is hard to predict with regards to when and where because commonly activity (not instability!) is variable over short distances; avalanche activity in areas with a DPS situation commonly are the only indicators. Any significant changes in weather- such as new snow, wind loading, warming (including radiation)- may bring the instability to its breaking point.

The avalanche related events of this past weekend prompted me to write up and share the concerns professional guides and avalanche professionals have with regards to our current snowpack (see a summary of avy accidents for this past weekend).  As I’m headed to ski guide in Europe, a few parting thoughts on how you can more safely manage the Rocky Mountain snowpack as the transition into Spring is slowly starting:

<> The snowpack across the Rocky Mountains, from southern Colorado to the north including much of BC in Canada has this similar kind of snow structure. Reports of DPS related incidents across this vast region therefore are meaningful even if its not at all close to where you recreate in the backcountry, because it demonstrates the situation of what eventually will happen in your area. Pay attention, and be very careful especially as such events start to occur closer to your area.

<> Don’t expect instability signs pointing out the imminent threat of DPS. By nature of the beast, its simply not happening. Instead, look for subtle clues, be especially weary of any significant weather changes. As we’re heading into Spring, watch out for rapid temperature changes (especially rapid warming), rapid and intense solar radiation, rain or heavy wet new snow, significant new snow including wind loading and choose conservative terrain while you observe the consequences of these weather events.

<> The snowpack appears to gain more and more strength as warm temperatures allow the snowpack to settle. The thing to remember about settlement is that its effect is mostly related to the upper snowpack. If you want to monitor the situation around the deep persistent layers, find a low angle slope (<30degrees) around/above treeline, preferably N-E (the snowpack there is likely deeper and colder, thus reflecting the worst), dig down to the ground to find the depth hoar, assess its size, hardness, bonding and compare it to its adjacent layers and perform a DT and/or PST… however, stable test results do not trump an obvious weak snow structure.

<> The current snowpack structure strongly suggests that we will experience a significant Wet Slab cycle at some point, one that may yield avalanches surprising both in power and extent. In order to have a wet slab problem, we need a persistent weak layer (check!), a slab above that weakness (check!), and heat affecting the snowpack (about to happen- check!). Often, the first significant warm up of the season is the one that triggers a widespread wet avalanche cycle. Pay attention to anything heat related, but I suspect the real problem will come after that first warm up, or at least a 2nd wave of the same will take place, because of the thickness and high density of the midpack slab. Wet slabs are very hard to predict regarding timing. Look for saturation within the snowpack- where, how much, how deep, any pooling and on what layer, check river flow rates to observe melt water run off which gives you a good idea about melt-freeze cycles or the lack of freezing and the extent of melting. This issue may very well manifest itself within ski resort boundraries (think about the avy fatality at Abasin’s Palovicini a few years back).

<> Remember that the stubbornness of a Deep Persistent Slab requires stubborn persistent patience on your part!

<> My preferred terrain when it comes to managing DPS are slopes that have avalanched recently and only partly refilled. This may not be easy to determine, so if in doubt, don’t do it.

<> Other than DPS, cornice falls and glide avalanches will also become an increasing issue. Many ridgelines have grown huge cornices. As the temperature warms up and radiation intensifies, they will become unstable and break. A large chunk of a cornice can hurt you if hit, but this chunk can also be the large trigger required to release a DPS.  Glide cracks occur as an entire snowpack starts to creep downhill, usually on smooth ground with a lack of anchors. With our deep snowpack, these could be quite powerful. Watch for fishmouth-like lines or cracks and avoid being on and underneath such slopes if the snowpack is not in a frozen state.

Spring ski season will be good, big lines can be skied safely – just be patient a little longer, be smart and wait and observe. Nature will let you know when its reasonably safe to go big. Patience my fellow backcountry friend, patience!

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Current Snow & Avalanche Conditions

February 6th, 2014 2:54pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

 STATE OF THE CURRENT SNOWPACK (central to southern Front Range – Summit/Vail – northern Sawatch)

This winter sure has been a good one thus far! Early snow provided some fine backcountry riding conditions by the end of October. The following dry spells weren’t that pronounced as frequent, albeit smaller, snowfalls followed intermittently. Around mid/late December, heaven’s gates opened up as the season’s first major snow storm hit our mountains hard. After another short break with nice and dry weather, more significant snow storms dropped heavy loads of snow.  Unusual for us, especially around the Divide and Front Range, there wasn’t a whole of wind overall with one exception during mid January when over a 10 day period, moderate to strong winds ravaged the mountain sides. Winter outdoor enthusiasts enjoyed playing in the mountains and are excited for more snow to come – this and next week.

What sounds like a winter fairy tale for us snow deprived Coloradans unfortunately does not equally translate into the avalanche conditions. If you believe the Avalanche Forecasters – and so you should! – the “high fluff factor” (lots of snow, great riding conditions) has been met with an elevated “pucker factor” (increased likelihood of triggering powerful avalanches). Avalanche danger ratings have been steady at around Considerable (a couple of  forays into High) for quite some time in the past… and will continue so at least for the near and mid range future.

How come? Lets look at how the season’s weather history affected the snow on the ground, which consequently defined avalanche danger conditions:

Early season– The early season 2ft snow was exposed to clear and dry weather with cold mountain temperatures. Depth Hoar grains at the base of the snowpack developed creating the first “strong over weak” layering. Generally, there wasn’t really enough of a slab on top of these facets to create avalanches big enough to pose a serious threat for bc travelers.

Christmas-/New Year– A series of snow storms dropped impressive amounts of snow. The unusual lack of wind meant the new snow remained fairly evenly distributed. Because 2-3ft of snow makes for a heavy load, the snowpack got stressed where a now stout slab overlaid the weak basal depth hoar facets. Consequently, the avalanche danger spiked into Considerable, even High. The season’s first major avalanche cycle occurred with an impressive number of natural avalanches and skiers triggering avalanches directly and remotely. Also, the season’s first 2 avalanche deaths occurred as well as many very lucky close calls.

Mid January– After the snow stopped and the clouds parted, evidence of a very impressive avalanche cycle showed most slopes 35degrees and steeper around and above treeline had avalanched. Most of these avalanches were very large in size with crowns often 6-12ft high and packing a strong punch (enough to destroy a large SUV). The failure layer was the basal depth hoar. An extensive period of windy weather followed and snow was redistributed into leeward areas. Because of changing wind directions and at times high wind speeds, wind loading was unusual and took place on all aspects. Once the winds subsided, sunny, dry and cold weather allowed the snowpack to strengthen- except for the basal depth hoar! On N-E aspects, the snow surface started to sport “recycled powder” (metamorphic faceting processes that occur at/near the snow surface) making once again for fine riding conditions. On Southerly slopes, the snow became cruddy and a melt-freeze crust developed on the surface.

Late January– More snow, and again lots of it. The snow came in somewhat warm translating in a higher than usual water-equivalent (a way to describe the mass of snow). The relative lack of wind let the snow blanket the mountains fairly evenly on all aspects. Such storm slabs tend to obscure older clues about snowpack instabilities and critical terrain features making precise avalanche assessment in the field more difficult. This storm slab with a higher than usual “weight” stressed the interface between the old snow surface and the storm snow. The buried faceted snow surface on N-E created a major weak layer and the snowpack started indicating its stress with rumbling collapses and shooting cracks. On South facing slopes, the crust initially allowed the warmer storm snow to bond well; over short time though that crust developed small facets (a common metamorphic process called near-crust faceting) and such slopes too started to indicate its stress. Snow Tests with easy to moderate failures and the occasional large avalanches around and above treeline on mostly on N-E-SW became added evidence of that stress. Fortunately, slopes that had avalanched during the major cycle seem to do better. Many had their start zones refilled enough to be avoided, but it often was reasonable to go around and underneath the start zones and ride the track below. Likely, this situation contributed greatly to keep the unknowing alive as many people went after some big lines.

At this point, we have the rather interesting and unique situation where 2 [Deep] Persistent Slabs are stacked atop of each other: the basal depth hoar underneath a stout hard slab in the middle of the snowpack, and the buried surface/near-surface facet atop the old snow covered by the recent storm snow. The current snowpack is very near its tipping point “stress < strength”. A little bit of added snow, wind loaded or precipitated will change this to “stress > strength”. The weather forecast for the next 10 days promises significant amounts of snow, and this time, also wind. The window where previously avalanched slopes were somewhat more stable is coming to an end. With more weight soon impacting our sensitive snowpack, it will be necessary to reign in your steep-and-deep ambitions and apply a cautious approach to backcountry travel. There may not be a whole lot of natural avalanches with the incremental new load, but Nature has set the trap for large and deadly human triggered avalanches!

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Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain

January 8th, 2014 2:47pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

Selecting and Managing Avalanche Terrain

Recently, I was asked how I choose and manage terrain in avalanche country.... That's a big, complex question! If it even is possible to give a short answer, it is that it depends on the type of avalanche problem I'm dealing with (for a good read up on avalanche problems, click CAIC and CAA). The following summarizes the process of selecting and managing avalanche terrain we teach at AIARE avalanche courses with Alpine World Ascents.

Avalanche Problems

For us here in CO, as we're currently dealing with an average winter snowpack, the predominant avalanche problems are wind slab and, as always, (deep) persistent slab. Specific weather events have created these avalanche problems. Weather affects variable terrain leading to a variable snowpack with specific avalanche conditions on specific terrain features. If one knows the weather history for a given location, it may be feasible to figure out the snowpack structure on certain terrain features and the associated avalanche problem - or vice versa, if one knows the avalanche problem, it may be feasible to figure out the weather history. All this, of course, is only possible in fairly broad strokes at best and still leaves even the most avy savy folks with some degree of uncertainty about the avalanche danger. The take-home point is that specific avalanche problems point to certain critical terrain features and knowing those provides a huge advantage of staying alive in avalanche terrain!

Wind Slab - The specific weather event is wind. Wind picks up snow in windward areas, also called "fetch zones", and transports that snow to leeward terrain features. For example, a Westerly Wind would fetch snow on West facing slopes and deposits that snow onto East facing slopes. In reality, this is much more complex as the mountain topography deflects the surface winds creating turbulences... very similar to water cascading down a creek where obstacles create a significant change of how that water flows. Winds being deflected by the mountains can both top-load and cross-load leeward terrain features. Being able to recognize potential wind loaded slopes on a map and while on tour is essential to spot Wind Slab. Because Wind Slabs live exclusively on wind loaded terrain features, it may be possible to ski big lines as long as these are free from wind loading. It may also be reasonable to duck underneath the start zone and ski the track and runout of a steep avalanche path. Careful though: If the weak layer is a persistent type of grain (any kind of facet) and the weak layer is widely distributed, it may be possible to remote trigger, from anywhere outside the start zone, a Wind Slab afterall!

Persistent Slab - So, what weather event created a Persistent Slab since we know that any slab avalanche can fail on a persistent/faceted weak layer? The sneaky answer is several weather events over time. Persistent Slabs live on terrain where slab overlies an old persistent/faceted layer. Such persistent/faceted layers can be made of depth hoar, facets grown around a melt-freeze crust or a sun-crust or a melt-layer, or surface and near-surface snow that morphed into facets and subsequently was buried by new and wind deposited snow. Knowing the weather history (combined with some decent  knowledge of snow metamorphism, AIARE 2&3 course) provides knowledge of what kind of facets are likely to exist in the snowpack. To observe the presence of such layers (AIARE 1 course), dig a snowpit, or less formally, scoop out a hole in the snow with your hands. In the end, all this leads to pretty good clues on what terrain features (terrain location, angle, shape, altitude, aspect to sun, aspect to wind, ground cover) those facets can be expected. Once the Persistent Slab has reached a certain depth, roughly around 6ft, it's called Deep Persistent Slab.

To make things even more complicated, there are often several avalanche problems present and their weaknesses may overlap in terrain features. For example, triggering a small Wind Slab could lead to triggering a much larger Persistent Slab resulting in a very large and lethal avalanche. Or, a loose avalanche (often called "sluff") may generate enough power to trigger a slab avalanche. Another example: a Hard Slab avalanche starting at higher altitudes may trigger a Wet Slab at lower altitudes. 

Terrain Selection

Non-professionals need to base their terrain choices on the Avalanche Danger Report which provides a danger rating as well as additional information describing in more detail the current avalanche problem. It is important to realize that, within a rating level, likelihood or consequences are often weighed differently. For example: a danger level of moderate could mean a situation where the likelihood of triggering an avalanche is low but its consequence is high/fatal (such a situation is also referred to as "dangerous moderate", which is often the case in connection with Persistent Slabs). 

The avalanche forecast centers are making our lives easier by not only rating the avalanche danger, but also by describing the current avalanche problems. Therefore, before heading into the backcountry, sidecountry, slackcountry, upcountry, badasscountry and whatnotcountry, always do a thorough tour plan thinking through the process of how the current specific avalanche problems are distributed, on what kind of terrain they live. Once you know the "dragons den", you then make your terrain selection, still at home, looking over maps, area fotos, google earth, guide books, etc. 

This terrain selection should consist of a precise description of no-go zones (areas you and your group members agree not to travel on that day no matter what), marked on your topo map, leaving wiggle room, options, for less aggressive and safer terrain. To ski the "less aggressive" terrain, you need to find a collection of clues that would encourage you to travel there - finding no clues or clues pointing towards the avalanche problems would move that terrain to the no-go zone. Therefore, its important to have terrain options up your sleeve that is considered hands-down safe for the day's conditions; having such alternatives will make it much more likely you'll actually go there if needed instead of skiing dubious terrain "one at the time". Once touring, having set a firm boundary on what terrain to avoid (the no-go zones), it is ok to modify plans on the fly since there are many good options to choose from.

Defenses against the Human Factor

Short and simple, Human Factors are the emotional, psychological, social influences at play when trying to make objective decisions. No one is immune from it; in fact these are essential mechanisms of how humans make sense of every day life. In critical decision making, these mechanisms can present lethal traps. While knowledge and skills certainly are important, 90% of avalanche incidents are attributed to the negative influences of Human Factors.

How much are you willing to pay for those sweet turns? In other words, what is your level of acceptable risk when traveling the backcountry? How much risk one is willing to take is a conscious personal/group choice. Often however, its not a high risk acceptance that gets folks into trouble, it is a skewed risk perception that leads to a non-intended high risk situation. While field observations are objective, interpreting that data, especially basing terrain choices there on, can be rather difficult and is subjectively influenced.

The Avaluator is a useful tool to get a clearer picture on our avalanche risk perception/acceptance and how we manage it provides (introduced by the Canadian Avalanche Association). The Avaluator provides a risk comparison that aids backcountry travelers figure out if the intended tour falls within their personal avalanche risk comfort level. It combines the Avalanche Danger Scale (describes with 5 levels - low / moderate / considerable / high / extreme - the likelihood of an avalanche to occur and the consequences thereof) with the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (terrain rated based on complexity – Simple: exposure to low angle and/or primarily forested terrain and may include tracks and runout zones of infrequent avalanche paths with many options to reduce or eliminate exposure /  Challenging: exposure to well defined avalanche paths including start zones and significant terrain traps with limited options to reduce exposure / Complex: exposure of multiple avalanche paths including start zones and significant terrain traps and/or large expanses of steep open terrain with minimal if any options to reduce exposure).

The No-Go Zone concept (described above) is a great defender against a host of Human Factors. Think of it this way: during your tour planning phase of your backcountry adventure, you make crucial decisions much more objectively as compared to during the emotionally charged situations when looking at masses of pow, great terrain that others are skiing. No matter what, once terrain is agreed upon as no-go, it’s off the table for that day- if you felt your terrain selection was too cautious, you can re-discuss it during the tour planning for the next day. However, you can always add terrain to the no-go zones while touring if you feel conditions are worse than anticipated.

Team work is another proven tool to fend against the Human Factor. Be picky with whom you travel the backcountry- differing attitudes, objectives, riding skills, fitness level, modes of travel, etc can prohibit positive group dynamic. Get to know yourself and your ski buddies- everyone has their weaknesses and strengths, mechanisms to deal with critical decisions. In the spirit of a Chinese proverb “In the face of Nature, a person is fragile like a small branch that breaks easily, however a bundle of small branches are hard to break”, a good team acts in support of each other. Communicate honestly and clearly- listen to others and make yourself heard about your opinion, reasoning, concerns, observations, etc. Take objections and concerns from any group member as a reason to reassess your own opinion. Discuss on-spot critical decisions from different view points such as Human Factor, field observations, terrain assessment arguing for and against before committing to the slope in question. If no consensus can be reached, then the most conservative opinion in the group rules.

Before committing to avalanche terrain, take a moment for your own silent reflection on this critical decision, go through all the information again. Such a pre-mortem debrief can bring to surface your gut feeling; intuition is a powerful mechanism that should not be neglected. However, gut feeling, intuition and spiritual callings should only be relied upon for no-go decisions, not the other way round.

Terrain & Group Management

In short, this is what's needed: Avoid critical snowpack and terrain features, reduce exposure and move in a timely manner.

Traveling in avalanche country involves critical decisions both on a macro scale (terrain selection) and micro scale (terrain management: dealing with specific terrain features on a slope / group management: organizing people and structuring the act of traveling). Terrain is the only known and reliable component in the world of snow and avalanches where an infinite number of variables and their combinations spread confusion - terrain doesn't change, but weather, snowpack, avalanche conditions do.

On the Macro Scale. Schedule oriented terrain choices (touring day is fixed, objective is flexible): The less stable the snow, the less steep the terrain choices need to be - slope angle reduction is the simplest way of minimizing one's exposure to avalanches. Slopes under 30dgr rarely produce avalanches (as long as such low angle terrain isn't exposed to steeper terrain from above). Goal oriented terrain choices (touring day is flexible, objective is fixed): Wait for the snowpack to be more stable in order to ski the big and gnarly lines. For us in CO, this often doesn't happen until well into Spring.

On the Micro Scale- Specific terrain aspects to consider, based on the avalanche problems, are terrain configuration, trigger points, terrain traps – specifically slope angle, location, altitude, aspect to wind, aspect to sun, shape, ground cover). It is an art form to read and utilize terrain efficiently, balancing safety considerations and the draw of untracked snow with effective timeliness. As a novice to backcountry travel, start with simple terrain (see ATES described above), especially when in unfamiliar territory, with limited visibility and/or during unusual conditions.

Once the decision is made by all members of the group that a certain slope is reasonably safe to travel, group management techniques to further increase the safety margin should be considered. All too often, such techniques are abused to make up for poor terrain choices. When applying such techniques, consider the downside of doing so. For example, spreading out or traveling one at a time costs time and limits communication within the group possibly creating other significant problems.

The concept of moving "from an island of safety to another one" is faulty on several levels. Often, such safety islands are trigger points; while it may be a safer spot to be at, moving to and away from them may not. Traveling between such safety islands must be reasonably safe in itself, especially considering that the time spent inbetween is far greater. Certainly though, taking breaks or regrouping after descending a section should be done at the safest terrain possible. 

Its good protocol to have a defensive riding style in the backcountry. Hucking a cornice or a boulder is the equivalent of putting these trigger points through the stress test - you'd better be very confident in your correct snow and avalanche assessment that doing so won't release the avalanche!

Golden Rules of Avalanche Terrain Selection & Management

Always go through the process of making a tour plan including the avalanche report. Not having a tour plan is like wearing a blindfold, whereas a tour plan enables one to see. Avoid terrain as specified in the avalanche danger report, notably with respect to the "avalanche problems". Never break the "no-go zones" rule while on tour. Instead, reassess as part of your post-tour debrief and make changes for the next day accordingly. Good travel techniques never trump poor terrain choices (at best, they may contain the damage). Manage uncertainty with an extra dose of caution. Uncertainty can exist because of reasons such as lack of knowledge, skill and experience; lack of information; lack of visibility; the inherent nature of the avalanche problem (persistent slabs, complex snowpack), unfamiliarity of the terrain. Take an avalanche course, further your avalanche knowledge – Avalanche education does save lives!

In the end, ask yourself: How much are you willing to pay for these turns? The only thing worse than getting yourself killed, is being part of poor decision making resulting in the death of your backcountry partners.

Incredibly sad and disturbing, yet insightful case studies that highlight this discussion: East Vail CO 1/7/2014 and 4/20/2013 Sheep Creek CO   


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Current Snow & Avalanche conditions

December 11th, 2013 11:17am - Posted By: Markus Beck

The STATE OF THE SNOWPACK in Colorado (mid dec 2013)

About a weak ago, just before the storms came through the CO mountains, I wrote about how the current snowpack evolved shaping the avalanche danger (see previous blog "Let the snow fall"). With the recent storms being a thing of the past and temperatures warming, the snowpack finally has the opportunity to adjust to those changes. 

Now I notice folks starting to use the term "BRIDGING" when describing the current snowpack structure. "Bridging" is a twisted concept in the avalanche world ..... Ask yourself:
>>> What does bridging mean? A hard/very hard slab on top of a (most often persistent) weak layer which absorbs the additional weight of travelers on that slab and preventing that weight from impacting the fragile weak layer underneath. 
>>> How thick does the bridge need to be? The harder the slab, the less thick it can be and still support that additional weight. Conceptually though, we think of a bridging layer to have a thickness of several feet. 
>>> How strong is a bridging layer? To call it a "bridge", it must be strong enough to support the weight of a skier, a snowmobile or even explosives. 
>>> How reliable is it? This is the money question! Most folks put too much faith into the bridging concept- and most likely get away with it. A "bridge" in more accurate terminology is a Deep Persistent Slab. Each avalanche type has its specific creation, habitat (distribution pattern), persistence, dimensions, triggerability and motion, and consequently requires a specific way to be dealt with, a risk management strategy unique to the avalanche type (click here for more info on Deep Persistent Slab ). The inherent Low-Trigger-Likelihood / High (fatal)-Consequence scenario demands a lot of respect and a conservative approach and the typical lack of instability signs in this context warrants suspicion. This is compounded by the fact that the snowpack is never uniform; changes in terrain (shape, angle, aspect, ground cover, location) exist over short distances and have a profound impact on the stoutness and uniformity of the "bridge" (spatial variability). These irregularities present the bridge's weakness, trigger points, and are often hard or impossible to pinpoint on the snow surface: margins of the slab, convex rolls, concavities, gullies, shallow buried rocks and trees, transition in stoutness (thickness: wind loaded to wind scoured / hardness: hard vs soft snow). The terrain characteristics least likely to trigger a "bridging" snowpack ask for a heavily wind loaded uniform slope with smooth ground cover - its going for the dragon's den... if you were wrong aka "shit out of luck", you will die! Because of the unpredictable nature of "bridging", it seems wise to maintain a wide safety margin with conservative terrain choices. 
>>> How much are you willing to pay for some great turns? Don't kid yourself.

This blog about a close call, survived only by sheer luck (thanks for sharing your story), links my words to the reality of the backcountry in the wintry mountains! Get avy savy - educate yourself on avalanche safety. At Alpine World Ascents, we take your avalanche safety seriously.

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USFS blocking Avalanche Safety Education at Berthoud Pass

December 5th, 2013 6:45pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

After more than 10 years of providing avalanche safety education to the public, school groups, ski patrol, search & rescue and military special operations, the USFS no longer allows Alpine World Ascents to provide its services at Berthoud Pass - click this link for a quick read up on this issue!

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Current Snow & Avalanche Conditions

December 2nd, 2013 3:38pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

Current Snow & Avalanche Conditions

This winter season has started out nicely so far: Small but steady mountain snowfall commenced around October and the snow coverage (avg. 40in, significantly more in wind drifted areas) became attractive enough for enjoying some decent early season turns. A major winter storm is about to hit out State bringing a mix of very strong winds (NW becoming SW), ample moisture and an arctic airmass. The result will be 1-2ft of new snow by the weekend when the storm moves on to the East, though the brunt of it happening Tue through Wed for the Northern and Central mountains.

Looks like some epic powder session! YESSS! How excited are you?!! After enjoying the first happy moments, avalanche savvy folks' thinking will then go to the next step which is "what does this all mean for avalanche conditions?". Here's a simplified step by step analysis on how you can play it safe:

Simply put, this early season snow has developed into a slab (old and wind deposited snow) overlying a weak layer (faceted or "sugary" snow) and this 2-layer cake sits on or very near the ground which provides the potential gliding or bed surface - a classic make up for avalanche prone conditions! Winds have re-distributed that snow from wind exposed (windward) into wind sheltered (leeward) areas where the snow depth measures 4-5ft and beyond. This increased the size of the slab that is sitting on top of that weak faceted layer. On steep slopes 35 degrees and up, this has lead to increased stress within the snowpack and thus increasing the likelihood for avalanches to occur. Now, ask yourself: where would you ski so early in the season? Of course, there where the snowpack is deeper providing better riding conditions - so, really, you'd choose the most avalanche prone slopes (in your defense, there really aren't that many options considering that pretty much the only slopes with good enough snow coverage are those wind loaded ones). Welcome to the continental snowpack of Colorado; this is a normal development for our mountains. Early season bc riding carries significant avalanche risk that is further amplified by overall shallow snow coverage leaving many rocks and tree stumps exposed that will add to the risk of trauma injuries should an avalanche carry you into such terrain traps.

In this most recent week, mountain weather varied between sunny and mild during the day and clear and cold during the night. This produced widespread and extensive surface and near-surface faceting. Direct sun and wind exposure destroyed some of those facets. What's left of it now is a somewhat complicated and discontinuous patchwork of faceted snow at/near the surface, found most prominently on wind shelted slopes around treeline on (W)-N-SE aspects. Not a bad thing at least for now, this "recycled powder" actually makes for some really nice skiing.
Already, bc travelers have been triggering numerous avalanches (breaking on the facets at/near the ground) but luckily, so far the greatest harm was no worse than a few careless folks pooping their undis. The slides were fairly small with not a whole lot of power to cause much havoc. Thus far, the prudent strategy to reasonably manage this avalanche risk has been to ski less than 35dgr especially on NW-E at and above treeline.

Things are about to get much more dicey with the approaching major winter storm!

The additional weight of 1-2 feet of storm snow will add more stress to the snowpack. Storm winds will re-distribute much of that new snow into leeward areas easily piling up 3-6ft into those terrain features. That's a whole lot of additional weight on an already weak snow structure! 

The surface and near-surface facets, now buried under the storm snow, are a major additional weak layer within the snowpack. Avalanches initially breaking loose on this layer may step down breaking on the weak layer at/near the ground. This is significant because A) the upper weak layer is more easily triggered by people, and B) the depth of an avalanche stepping down to the ground will be so much more destructive packing plenty of punch to bury and kill a person.

As this major winter storm develops, the avalanche danger quickly will raise and you can expect very touchy avalanche conditions. Likely, we'll see a natural avalanche cycle on steep slopes 35dgr and more especially on NW-SE at/above treeline and the less steep slopes will be very sensitive to skier triggering. After the storm, sunny skies will return, but things will take some time to settle down. The very cold air, forecasted to last till around the middle of next week, will keep the snow instabilities pretty much the same. 

With this coming storm, bc travelers will need to play it very very conservatively for some time, till several days into the next dry spell with milder temperatures. Stick to slopes less than 30dgr steep, avoid mellow terrain underneath steeper slopes (especially in well traveled areas where skiers may drop in on dangerous slopes above you). 

There are several Human Factors at play worth mentioning with this developing scenario.

<> Powder Fever - We have endured two miserable winters in a row and every skier is drooling for powder at this point. Don't let your desperation for powder push you beyond the limitations of conservative terrain choices.

<> Familiarity - With this storm, things will get bad real fast and the lingering cold temperatures will keep the elevated avalanche danger steady. Your habits of timing your terrain choices will need to be more patient this go around. Just because you have done things a certain way in the past doesn't mean it will work the same every time. 

<> Expert Halo - Avalanche safety training is one thing, experience another. In recent years you may have dealt with even worse avalanche situations which made you think you really know what you're doing. Unless you have done your homework, an honest debrief for yourself and with your peers with the main question in mind "did I just get lucky, or did I actually make sound decisions?", don't think too highly of your skills.

<> Communication - Whatever your impression on how things with your tour are going, speak up, communicate honestly with each other and take concerns as a prompt to think through your decision making process once again. If you don't like the looks and feel of a slope but you can't explain it, its probably your common sense kicking in at the right moment, so leave it alone. Ride with people you know and get along with, live by similar risk acceptance, share similar objectives in the backcountry and have avalanche safety training at least at your level.
<> Respect and Attitude - You may have triggered and even been caught in an avalanche but you walked away unharmed giving you the feeling that all that hype about how dangerous avalanches are, is a bit over the top. Just do the math on how much snow even a little avalanche carries and you realize that you're lucky not getting into serious trouble mucking about with this attitude. Bring a healthy dose of respect and a not-so-bad-ass attitude to the backcountry, you'll live longer. And, get and continue to improve your avalanche savvy!

Once Nature starts to relax, we then will be left with dealing mainly with "persistent deep slabs" a very mean beast. These slabs are hard to pinpoint on the mountain slopes, hard to trigger even by larger loads (snowmobiles, explosives) but when cut loose will break big and ravage with absolute deadly power.... More on this later.

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April 30th, 2013 6:06pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

The recent avy deaths (last couple of years, nation wide) seem to have initiated a debate about avalanche safety education in the USA. Clearly, avy ed can be improved and looking back 13 years ago, with the inception of AIARE, wow, there sure has been a huge improvement! To speak of a crisis in avy ed however, I feel is a dramatic overstatement. Naturally, with the increase of avy ed available, more folks with said avy ed will get involved in avy accidents. No one- novice or experts alike- ultimately is immune against avalanche accidents, but the fact that an increasing number of folks with some degree of avy education and experience (a loaded term) are getting into bad accidents, indeed is disturbing especially if some of the mistakes seem to be on the basic side of "safe avy protocol". Afterall, avy ed is supposed to lower the rate of incidents per capita. So, how can avy ed be further improved?

Topics commonly taught in an avalanche course (variations exist based on the course level) are skills to recognize avy terrain, understand the various types of avalanches, interpretation of the offical avy report, relate terrain selection to the avy danger, discuss how human factors impact our decision making. The most common avalanche course in the USA nowadays follows the guidelines of AIARE.

... To stir the conversation, these are my thoughts on how to improve avalanche safety education in the USA: 

1) Avy ed provided by non-professionals should be limited to introductory level avalanche awareness. This is an important part of avy ed as this kind of awareness gets the avy related dangers into people's minds and provides a starting point for 

2) Raise the level of qualification for avalanche safety instructors. Currently, becoming an AIARE endorsed avy instructor is easy: take a L1 and L2,  take an AIARE 2 day instructor course, you're ready to teach if you meet a basic set of minimal prereqs. I suggest instructors not only have to have take the L3 course, but also undergo an instructor training that addresses personal and teaching skills and that is pass-fail. Furthermore, instructors should have a resumee that reflects a broad range of experience working in avalanche terrain; this experience should be ongoing a make up a significant portion of the instructor's livelihood.

3) Revisit the skills that are taught in our courses. The importance of tour planning and human factors could be stressed more; especially these topics have to be taught more hands-on. Perhaps an apprenticeship system to gain experience while under the tutelage of a professional? 

4) Consider moving away, at least partially, from analytical based avy ed to instead look at more rule based frameworks such as the "reduction method" which is standard in Europe or references to a "terrain complexity scale" as the Canadians are doing. Making terrain choices based on analytical processes is the stuff that professionals do; its very difficult and non-finite in the level of confidence of the result. 

5) Make the courses longer. Teaching the skills is the easy part, applying these skills is the tough part. People have to be made to understand that in the mountains, doing things "McDonalds-style" simply does not work (hence my thoughts on further professionalizing instructor qualifications). Being reasonably safe in the bc is a difficult skill to learn and takes time to apply effectively. The cost factor also is something that affects length and quality of avy ed.

6) Mandate a regular refresher course- akin to wilderness medicine courses. 

Similarly, the avalanche bulletins need to become more intuitive without compromising on delivering the resources with detailed info on weather, snowpack, avy for those who like. What is intuitive? Perhaps less words but more visual, systematic listings of the avy problems, relating the avy danger to a terrain scale?

One thing though to always keep in mind: what folks do with their education remains up the them!

What are your thoughts (I especially welcome insight from recognized experts like avalanche forecasters, avalanche scientists, veteran avalanche instructors, veteran guides, veteran Search & Rescue ... but also from recreationals)? Also read the article about the 4/20/2013 Loveland Pass accident, "Lessons Learned?" in Outside Magazine.

-Markus Beck (AIARE avy instructor, AMGA/IFMGA certified ski & mountain guide making a full-time living of teaching and guiding in the mountains year round since 2000)

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Sheep Creek accident, Loveland Pass CO

April 24th, 2013 7:03pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

As tragic as the big avalanche accident at Loveland Pass is, good can be gained by looking at all the parameters involved that caused this accident which then can serve as a learning experience helping with our own survival. In this spirit, their loss takes on a meaning that may save lives and broken hearts.

Friends of Berthoud Pass wrote this great memo; it describes some important aspects about dealing with the avalanche phenomenon in general.

The CAIC published a detailed accident report describing the events leading up to this tragic accident. With this information, we can put together the puzzle pieces trying to figure out how they fit into the big picture. Pattern recognition tries to describe what snowpack instabilities lie where on the terrain and how big the likelihood of triggering an avalanche and the consequences thereof might be.

Weather, Snowpack, Avalanche Clues

This Winter season's unusual weather created exceptionally tricky and dangerous avalanche conditions. Even the most seasoned avy-savy folks had their surprises on just how sketchy things were. By mid April, Spring had only a short showing before Winter returned. A period of warm temperatures strengthened the upper and mid snowpack layers, yet deep down near the ground, a significant layer of unconsolidated weak faceted snow remained. The solid feel of these strong layers created a false sense of confidence in the snowpack's strength and the several feet of new snow provided fun riding conditions. Even though the calendar said its Spring, the snowpack still had a very wintry character.

The few days leading up to this accident, several puzzle pieces indicated that triggering avalanches was a real possibility: The CAIC issued the avalanche danger level to Considerable on N-E near/above treeline with the main concern being Persistent Deep Slabs. There were recent occurrences of Deep Slab releases in the area and nearby both natural and skier triggered, one of which resulted in the death of a backcountry skier just two days prior. Disturbingly, but true to the nature of this beast, very few if any instability signs (whumpfs, shooting cracks) were observed.

Terrain & Group Management

The group's terrain choice for their descent was above treeline with a mostly Westerly aspect. The terrain's configuration created a different snowpack less likely to produce these dangerous Persistent Slab avalanches: Throughout the season, the wind had stripped away much of the snow on this slope though the most recent storms finally managed to keep it covered. As a result, the overall layering was less pronounced, the slab a bit softer and less thick and the weak layer of depth hoar near the ground more patchy and smaller in grain size and layer depth. So far so good.

The group's terrain choice for their approach however fit the CAIC's description of likely avalanche terrain: From their start at the road, they got on to the Northerly aspects and crossed below very steep terrain. Here, the season's snow had accumulated much earlier and deeper and therefore had developed various layers including hard slabs overlaying well developed weak depth hoar on/near the ground.

On their approach, the group's decision to undercut the very steep start zone, spread out and regroup on a shallow lightly treed rib shows that they were aware and couscious about the avalanche danger there. Unfortunately, this terrain configuration lends itself to triggering that kind of avalanches: Undulations in the terrain create a variable snowpack both in structure and depth. Persistent Deep Slab avalanches are triggered where the persistent weak layer is buried more shallow - the crown depth varied between 25cm to 380cm- at transitions between wind loading and wind scouring (ribs and gullies, convex rolls, shallowly buried boulders or trees, stances of trees).

Disregarding the evidence of the avalanche activity over the recent days, the group under estimated the severe nature of this avalanche problem: The possibility of remote triggering, the size and power of the avalanche. The perceived safety of their regrouping spot more likely was a trigger point as the terrain, studded by trees and transitioning from a wind loaded slope into a gully and into a shallow rib with a snowpack depth range from very deep to very shallow. A small stance of trees or a shallow rib in the middle of a big avalanche path can rarely be considered a safety spot. 

Applying travel techniques, like spreading out or going one at a time, serves to mitigate a risk that has already determined to be reasonably low. Undercutting a big and steep start zone while exposed to a terrain trap requires a very high confidence level in the strength of the snowpack...  but the group was dealing with the uncertain nature of a Deep Persistent slab.

Human Factor

The circumstances in which this group operated - a fundraiser for the CAIC, avalanche safety awarness - implies that this group was not out there seeking the adrenalin rush or going for bragging rights. In fact, I personally know a couple of the victims and therefore I know this group was very safety conscious. Furthermore, the members of this group all had taken avalanche safety courses to various levels. 

Human Factors are almost always at play when avalanche accidents occur. Lack of Leadership: Very commonly, when there are "too many cooks", communication becomes ineffective. These individuals were smart, avy-savy, fairly experienced, ... but no one lead or spoke up. Fear of disagreeing? Fear of appearing weak? Fear of hurt egos? Overconfidence: Strong riding skills and good avalanche safety training but perhaps not a whole lot of experience (as in time spent managin risk in avalanche terrain), especially given the very unusual nature of conditions. Avalanche knowledge and experience in avalanche terrain are separate issues though interlinked. Knowedge is gained readily through books, lectures, avalanche courses but experience is acquired over years. Experience built over the course of years but with faulty skills creates the positive feedback loop phenomenon ("no avalanche incidents occured, so must be doing things right").  Herding Instinct: Especially in a group full of males, its easy to have an atmosphere of "can-do" take over rationale. Research shows that an individual within a group is more likely to accept a higher degree of risk than alone. Short Cut Thinking: An interesting albeit faulty way of how we problem solve is by comparing a current situation to a similar situation of the past. Hereby we focus on similarities between these two situations and respond with the same solution. In that process we fail to recognize the differences and the solution that worked last time may be inadequate this time.

Additional insights, thoughts, rants on Lou Dawson's Blog Wild Snow. My condolences go to everyone involved. 

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Early Spring Misconceptions

March 14th, 2013 8:43pm - Posted By: Markus Beck

Springtime is upon us and many skiers and riders are chomping at the bit to ski new lines and get deeper/further into steeper terrain that simply was not possible earlier this season.  There are several misconceptions about the current snowpack, arising especially after the (GOOD!) series of storms we have had in late February and March 2013.




1.       Riding slopes that avalanched earlier in the season are safer... Unfortunately, slopes that avalanche reloaded on these same basal facets within a short time, many of them have avalanched several times this season!

2.       The snowpack's hard mid layers are bridging the weak faceted layers deep down... Let's call it what it is: This "bridge" is a joke! This hard mid layer averages 4-5ft in thickness (hardly enough to provide confidence), varies greatly in thickness and is discontinuous (so much that it would be foolish to bet your life on it), and changes from hard to soft half way down the slope (which is a major trigger point). If you're riding steep and big lines betting this bridging snowpack is going to hold up, just recognize that if you lose, you're losing your life.

3.       The lack of instability signs (whumpfing, shooting cracks, collapses) indicates that avalanches are becoming less likely... This assumption may prove a fatal error in judgment as Persistent Slabs tend not to produce a whole lot of instability signs.

4.       The warm days are settling the snowpack... This is correct only for the top layer, and predominantly on low and mid elevation sunny slopes. The mid and lower portions of the snowpack remain in full winter conditions, multi layered, highly complex and variable. It will take extensive days of high radiation and warm temperatures to affect the full snowpack. Also keep in mind that such ongoing intense heating of the snowpack will lead to wet slab avalanches.

5.       The Avy Bulletin has been posting the same old forecast and warnings over and over... Well, conditions are just that. The large faceted snow at the base of the snowpack, 1-4ft thick, has been around since late December and has been creating unstable to very unstable snow conditions ever since. Called Persistent Slab, the persistent nature and the extraordinary extent of these avalanches means that this problem will last well into April.

6.       The avalanche danger is only moderate (or perceived as less than considerable)... Avalanche Danger Ratings try to balance "likelihood of triggering" and "consequences (destructive potential)" - this could mean:

a.      low likelihood, high consequences

            b.      high likelihood, low consequences.

While early season scenario B was more commonly the case, things have recently changed to scenario A. While the odds are in the riders' favor, if you trigger an avalanche, it will kill you! Pushing your luck is a bad insurance policy in the mountains.


 The recent storm snow is starting to bond better with the old snow, especially on sun exposed slopes. Wind Slabs still are found on many leeward slopes and can be triggered by light loads (eg. a skier); these would likely be of smaller size. Such an avalanche in the upper snowpack is likely to step down into deeper layers which will become much larger in size and pack a very hard punch. The main problem still is the Persistent Slab, a weakness deep down, at the base of the snowpack. Snow tests consistently show the huge propagation potential of this kind of avalanche and recent avalanche activity confirms this deep instability with collapses, shooting cracks and avalanches propagating up to several hundred feet.

Over the past week, I occasionally observed heinous collapses rumbling into the far distance, shooting cracks propagating several hundred feet, small and large column tests producing results ranging anywhere from very easy to very hard but with very clean failures, small and big avalanches that run surprisingly far and on surprisingly less steep slopes.

The snowpack is very complex and highly variable. This season has produced a very weak and avalanche prone snowpack, yet just how bad things are keeps delivering surprises even for professional avalanche workers and guides:

·         trying to pinpoint the snowpack's terrain distribution patterns has become impossible

·         human triggered avalanches can be expected on slopes 30degrees and steeper around and above treeline on all aspects

·         Such uncertainty must be managed by cautious terrain selection - backcountry travelers are well advised to keep to slopes less than 30 degrees with no steeper slopes above keeping a respectful distance even in the run out zones.

Keep in mind that the snowpack is in contant dynamic change, with new variables introduced consistently. What may seem stable one day can easily become be treacherous the next.  Keep your human factor in check and your head above the snow!  See you out there,

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Aftermath of Survival

February 6th, 2013 2:06pm - Posted By: FreeSkier Magazine

The Aftermath of Survival: Post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real factor in avalanche accidents

Published with permission of FreeSki Magazine, Words by Devon O’Neil

By the time Brett Gray stopped moving, the avalanche had carried him 1,200 vertical feet. He had been entombed in darkness and crushed by the massive pressure, choked by snow and—in a merciful twist of fate that likely saved his life—shot into the air like a cannonball as the avalanche rumbled over a knoll, moments before it compacted. Gray looked around the deposition zone, almost unable to comprehend that he was only buried to his chest. The debris was the width of two football fields, hardened like bedrock and up to 25 feet deep. Amazingly, his sunglasses still clung to his face.

 It was March 19, 2012. A minute earlier, Gray had dropped in on virgin powder that blanketed the north face of the Schoellenhorn, an 8,742-foot peak in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Three of his friends, including their guide, had already descended. On Gray’s fourth turn, the mountain started moving like a tidal wave.

Gray, a 53-year-old snowmaker and former ski patroller from Breckenridge, CO, is no stranger to avalanches. Many years ago, he dug a four-day-old corpse out of a massive debris field in his hometown. But he’d never come so close to dying in one himself. The emotional toll was substantial. He spent the rest of his week in Switzerland popping sleeping pills and skiing in the grip of terror. When he got home, he broke down and sobbed with his wife. He stopped popping pills to stave off dependency but couldn’t sleep through the night for a week.

“I would wake up and think about it, and the adrenaline would sweep over me and just take over,” he says. “I was reliving it over and over again: the snow, the choking, the darkness. I kept thinking I was going to die.” He pauses for a minute. “Yesterday was bonus day number 119.”

Gray’s experience highlights a rarely addressed but very real factor in avalanche accidents—post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of society associates PTSD with war, for good reason, but it’s just as persistent in other aspects of life, including activities we do for fun.

Click here to read the full article at FreeSkier Magazine.

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Echo Peak Avalanche Accident

January 22nd, 2013 6:34pm - Posted By: Markus Beck


Echo Peak, Sierra Mountains, CA 

An agonizing account (click on the above to get the full story in text, photos and videos), an honest reflection and lessons to be learned.

Thanks for their sharing of their story, despite the sure anticipation of drawing harsh criticism from wise-asses around the country. That takes guts. Of course, many mistakes were made here, some were painfully obvious, some others, well, we all have to watch out for. Sure, a healthy dose of common sense, an average IQ as well as basic avalanche awareness training go a long way, but none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes and we all fall victim to Human Factors regardless if you're an "expert" or a novice. From their story, everybody can take something to learn from; which was afterall the selfless motivation from the people involved.

Avalanche Danger Situation:

The avalanche danger forecast for the day of the accident was Moderate for NW-E-SE on all elevations. Recent storm and wind loading created a consolidated strong mid and upper snowpack. This slab was resting on a deeply buried layer of persistent weak snow (facets associated with rain crusts) creating "persistent deep slab" avalanche concerns. Additionaly, fresh wind deposited snow had formed sensitive wind slab in isolated very steep leeward slopes. With this in mind, the most suspect terrain and terrain features were slopes of 35dgr or more in steepness, leeward and areas where the snowpack transitioned from a shallower to a deeper snow depth (ie. margins of wind slab, undulating terrain like convex rolls, cliffs, protruding rocks and trees). On such terrain, it would be possible for a human to affect the weak later otherwise protected by the stout and thick slab which then could propagate into areas where the snowpack is deep releasing a large avalanche.

1. Mistake- Poor terrain selection: Deep slab avalanches are commonly triggered in areas where the terrain is shallower. Even though that avalanche broke on an instability withing the storm snow as opposed to a buried layer of facets, the party chose to travel terrain that mateched these most suspect terrain features perfectly. While they were aware of the danger, their risk management strategy was "skiing one at a time" - this strategy alone is not sufficient as a tool to mitigate the risk (its like saying, its ok to have only 1 person get killed instead of the entire group). Instead, proper snowpack and terrain analysis must determine if certain terrain should or should not be traveled.

2. Mistake- inadeqaute avalanche rescue gear: (2 sets of beacon/shovel/probe for a party of 5) Not carrying minimal avalanche rescue gear is reckless! Not having a basic understanding on how to use such rescue gear is crazy! Stunning that such mistakes are still widespread, even occasionally amongst professionals: I know of a case in Zermatt, CH, where the official guide of a party of 5 got buried in a small avalanche. He died because his clients were not equipped with avalanche rescue gear other than personal beacons and did not have any knowledge how to use it. Today's avalanche rescue gear, foremost its beacon technology, has improved a lot. Still, performing even a simple real-life rescue mandates practice.

3. Mistake- experience levels: Inexperience and over-confidence often go alongside. The team leader was experienced and familiar with the terrain, the rest of the group were very strong skiers but otherwise as green as it gets with respect to avalanche awareness; this put the leader into the role of a guide. This is something that happens all the time in recreational groups. If you are that leader, ask yourself "do I really want to make life and death decisions for people who depend on me?" Professional guides train very hard for these situations, and let me tell you: the leadership role can be an exceedingly burdening role. Uneducated backcountry travelers have a responsibility to themselves and their peers to get educated on avalanche safety!

4. Mistake- Human Factors: Excitment, scarcity, social proof, familiarity, overconfidence, lack of experience, incorrect risk perception, ... all are powerful factors that have the ability to override smart intentions with poor decisions. This is true for novices and experts alike. Being aware of one's own human weaknesses, and strengths, is an important tool in defending against human factors. In this case, the group, or mainly the group leader, fell for Heuristic Traps. These can be loosely described as a short cut way of thinking that takes past time similarities as a model behavior. In order to make quick decisions, or to simplify complex situations, the focus is on only very few key points creating a mental model of "rule of thumbs" which is then applied to situations that appear similar. The most common Heuristics associated with avalanche accidents are Familiarity, Social Proof, Scarcity, Commitment. In this situation, the group leader was very familar with the terrain, knew about this particular slope's propensity for avalanching and was aware of the avalanche danger that day. A quick decision in a complex situation led him to problem solve with "ski one at a time" instead of a more objective analysis of terrain and snowpack factors and group dynamics.

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