Avalanche Near Aspen Kills One — Falls Only 200 Vertical Feet

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 25, 2010      

Backcountry avalanche terrain in this area of Colorado has been incredibly dangerous. Even before recent storms dropped several feet of snow in places, the snowpack was so unstable that people were remotely triggering avalanches that ran in odd places, such as through incredibly dense timber from tiny starting zones. These types of lengthy avalanche danger cycles are nothing new to Colorado — or really nearly any region of cold, high altitude mountains. Thin snowpack combined with cold equals recrystalization of the snow; more snow accumulates on top of the weak crystals, and the whole conglomeration ends up sitting there like a time bomb waiting for a fuse.

Sadly, the fuse this past Tuesday was Aspen local John Joseph Kelley, who died in an avalanche near the Lindley Hut.

Lindley Hut avalanche

Photo of Lindley Hut avalanche, courtesy CAIC. A man also died in an avalanche here in 2002. While CAIC wasn't specific about where in the photo victim was buried, we're assuming he was somewhere near the denser trees in the center of the photo. The fracture is obvious in the photo, and actually continues out of my cropped version to the right (see full version on CAIC website via link above). Bear in mind that this slide only ran a paltry 200 vertical feet -- but moved a lot of snow. Reports say some of the debris probed at six feet deep

This tragedy brings a few things to mind. Yes, it’s easy to focus on the fact that Kelley wasn’t wearing a beacon and his companions couldn’t do a companion rescue. But look beyond that obvious lesson (according to reports, significant trauma was a factor, so as always the beacon was a last resort anyway). Following is some of the schooling myself and friends got over the past weeks. Yep, always learning.

After we remotely triggered an alarming and deadly avalanche a few weeks ago (we were on a ridge, following a safe route), it was obvious that we had an exceptionally dangerous situation in this region. After realizing the reality of our dire snowpack, the first thing that came to our minds is that we had to ramp up our level of caution to levels that can look ridiculous and are hard to sustain. As a result, we subsequently skied some very conservative terrain that day, to the point of not getting in much in the way of turns — but adhering to the mindset that we were out on a “tour,” and we’d just enjoy ourselves no matter what. But a few days later we still had another close call.

We were in the same area, skiing super conservatively, but the approach to one of our favorite zones crosses the runout of a huge avalanche path. The thing only runs once a year or so, but we all commented that the monster looked primed and ready, and thus worthy of caution. So on the way in we crossed one at a time, near the lowest historical run of the path where it only reaches on bigger years.

Then, on the journey back we let our guard down. Due to various circumstances (including the desire to make about four more turns) we ended up a bit higher on the path . We were still in the runout, but in an area that gets hit nearly every time the path slides. We crossed quickly, one at a time, and returned home. Later that day, someone else who was there after we left told me that about 1/2 hour after we crossed, the path ran big and covered our tracks. If the path did slide while you were crossing near the middle, it’s too wide to do a quick exit before getting hit. Whoa. Thirty minutes from one of us possibly getting killed. That to me was too close.

Mistake, we let our guard down because we just couldn’t make the leap to the level of caution that would have taken us lower on the path. In fact, on the return we’d even discussed crossing higher, so as to avoid climbing in and out of a small gully that requires some inconvenient side stepping.

Takehome: The craft of avalanche safety requires much thinking and acting outside your day-to-day routines. It’s easy to learn how to evaluate snowpack safety, especially when you live near or in the areas you ski. But what you do with your evaluation is a whole other story. My advice is to be radical. If you live and play in a mid-continental snowpack (or for that matter, in any snow climate), be willing to dial your expectations and resulting actions back so far you may hardly feel like you’re “skiing,” in the sense of modern climbing for turns. But you’ll stay alive so that when it does get good, and it will, you’ll be there to enjoy it.

We send our condolences to Kelley’s family and friends, and want to reemphasize that a snowpack this tricky is incredibly tough to deal with both intellectually and on a gut level. Thus, any of us could have ended up in Kelley’s situation — beacon or no beacon.


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52 Responses to “Avalanche Near Aspen Kills One — Falls Only 200 Vertical Feet”

  1. Tom Gos February 25th, 2010 10:01 am

    Lou, that was a great way to cover this tragic story. I’m headed on a trip to Francie’s tomorrow and just sent a message to my group about coming into this trip with realistic expectations for what terrain we can ski. Thanks.

  2. Clark February 25th, 2010 10:13 am

    Well said Lou.

    Condolences to John and family.

  3. KDog February 25th, 2010 10:18 am

    Another unfortunate event during a really tricky winter. I just finished my Avalanche Operations Level 1 thru the CAA in Revelstoke in some of the worst avy conditions in years.

    I’ve lived in both Colorado and Utah, and dealt with the continental snowpack, but here in the Selkirks we usually get the fairly stable interior type. Unlike the Rockies and Wasatch this year who are dealing with facets/depth hoar, we have multiple layers of really persistent surface hoar as our weak layers with some facetting mixed in just for good measure.

    The snow has been coming in small amounts 6 inches to a foot and just built the stress to the point where there weren’t many natural slides, but human triggers were almost a given. Heli and Cat ski operations were reporting multiple skier accidentals and skier remote triggers as well as heli and snowcats remotely triggering avalanches. One Heli Op took one run and packed their clients back in the bird and called it a day. Another one was guiding on 15 of their 175 named runs.

    Our class was lucky enough to get a Heli flight well into the alpine where we were dropped to dig pits. While we were doing profiles the pilot flew to the opposite ridgeline, tapped his skids on likely trigger points and propagated monster fractures that travelled peak to peak across ridges. bowls, thru trees for a least a 1/4 mile. These slides were stepping down to deeper layers and sized 2 -3. It was scary and awesome to witness.

    So far this season, there have been three fatalities all with failure on a surface hoar layer. Numerous burials or partial burials with companion rescues and many, many reports from backcountry skiers who triggered avalanches with no involvement. It’s snowing now after a week of clear, cold weather. The current layer of surface hoar is getting buried as I type. THe crystals are huge, some well over an inch long.

    No matter where you ski, everybody should be bringing their brain into the backcountry this season. It is as tricky as I have seen it in years.

    Stay safe

  4. Lou February 25th, 2010 10:20 am

    Wow KDog!

  5. Chuck February 25th, 2010 10:33 am

    Anyone for Willy’s????

  6. Lynne Wolfe February 25th, 2010 11:02 am

    Well said Lou- I’d love to use your take-home paragraph in the April issue of The Avalanche Review as a pull quote- so relevant for this year. Thanks for your thoughtful approach and honest self-assessment to what always boils down to the human factor.


    “Takehome: The craft of avalanche safety requires much thinking and acting outside your day-to-day routines. It’s easy to learn how to evaluate snowpack safety, especially when you live near or in the areas you ski. But what you do with your evaluation is a whole other story. My advice is to be radical. If you live and play in a mid continental snowpack (or for that matter, in any snow climate), be willing to dial your expectations and resulting actions back so far you may hardly feel like you’re “skiing,” in the sense of modern climbing for turns. But you’ll stay alive so that when it does get good, and it will, you’ll be there to enjoy it.”

  7. Lou February 25th, 2010 11:39 am

    Sure Lynne, always an honor to be quoted (or at least it usually is…)

  8. Michael Kennedy February 25th, 2010 12:14 pm

    Condolences to the family and friends … so sad.

    Well said, Lou. Let’s all be extra-special careful out there.

  9. Mike February 25th, 2010 12:29 pm

    Thanks for the well thought out report. The snowpack this year seems to be hyper sensitive. A few weeks ago we triggered a D2 avalanche in Sams Trees in Red Mountain Pass (No one was caught). I always thought this was a safe area. Lesson learned is always have the radar turned up.

  10. Cory February 25th, 2010 1:59 pm

    My big lesson from the year is to not over emphasize an achor (actually numerous anchor’s) ability to stablize a slope. I’ve seen numerous slides this year in “the trees”. (Just look on CAIC’s accident reports from this year and you can see a handful of pics.)

    My 2 personal close encounters:
    Clover Mtn. Northeast side. Skied the top w/ no problems or signs of instability. Dropped into the low angle burn area and what I thought was a breath of safety. Still skiing one at a time, witnessed one of my partners trigger a slide on a small, treed roll-over.

    Williams Peak North side. Skied the “safe” enterance into the upper field. Skied the field w/ no problems. Dropped down the next step in tight trees and triggered a small slide.

    Both instances were “wake-up calls”. Not what I would call killer slides, but a little heads-up from the man above.

  11. Carla Wheeler February 25th, 2010 2:06 pm


    Just a reminder to us all, the more you know the lest you know. Mother Nature can fool us all at times. Proud of the K9s in the field and giving closure for the friends and family. MRA and many teams around the mountains are a valuable asset to the community. We all need to be each others protection in the woods and never discount variables. Risk vs consequences, a valuable lesson learned from from an AAA class in AK for me.

    Love and prayers to friends and family. C3

  12. Lou February 25th, 2010 2:07 pm

    Another thing this winter schooled me on is that with this type of snowpack, a slope with quite a few tracks on it is not as safe as one might assume. Yeah, I know, they teach you in avy class that a tracked slope isn’t any safer than an untracked slope. With a good snowpack, I disagree with that and believe a well tracked slope can indicate a safer zone. A lot of other people appear to agree with that point of view. BUT, with delayed action deep slab like this winter around here, tracks can actually weaken the slope, and thus sometimes the more tracks the more likely to slide. Tricky.

    As for the terrain anchors, way over rated. Slope angle is infinitely more important.

  13. Thomas B February 25th, 2010 2:36 pm

    Terrain anchors are also always facet farms (trees, rocks,etc= increased temperature gradient)
    Slope angle is important but runout angle is often overlooked.

    I am as passionate a skier as the next guy but have learned that dialing it back is vital. Including NOT GOING OUT. There are other activities that while maybe not as fun as touring or skiing sure beat risking death.

  14. Carla Wheeler February 25th, 2010 4:39 pm


    Yes, I agree and have always brought up the falsehood of trust with a skier compacted slope. Due to the diversity of compaction (Unlike what happens pre season at the Highlands Bowl) probabilty of deformation is inconsistant. Hey, even in bounds areas slide in the spring. Snow forecasting is not a perfect science even for the professionals. History of slides tend to repeat themselves in the same areas and yet there will always be new locations due to the human aspect.

    The better you are the better you need to be, the anity keeps going up,yet the conditions are not ever the same at the same location.

  15. Layne February 25th, 2010 4:53 pm

    This story scares me because I was caught in a similarly small slide last week where the slide only ran 200-300 vertical feet and 14″ deep. I got hung up on a tree 200′ down the slope which kept me from being buried, but left with with the worst bruises I’ve ever experienced. (Thankfully nothing broken). I’ve skied conservatively here in UT all winter but pushed my luck a bit on the last run of the day.

    I mention that to state my point: Until you have a personal experience with the dangerous snowpack, it is hard to internalize how dangerous the snowpack really is this year. I was lucky. Many people have not been as Iucky as I. When you talk about “dialing down your expections” of what to ski, that rings so true to me.

    Thanks Lou for bringing up stories like this. A good warning to all and I hope people learn from this tragedy. Condolences to his family and friends.

  16. CookieMonster February 25th, 2010 5:14 pm

    There is a discussion on TGR about a new Burton Snowboards advert that contains a photograph of snowboarder triggering a small avalanche.


    The debate involves the suitability of the photograph for an advert, along with whether or not the copywriting is, perhaps, a bit flippant considering the subject matter.

  17. KDog February 25th, 2010 5:52 pm

    I hear you Lou on “old ski tracks”.

    Here is an email I received last week. It’s written by Karl Klassen who is an Avalanche Forecaster for the Canadian Avalanche Center and a ski guide. This email is his observations while guiding last week. It’s kind of long, but check out the second paragraph.

    Subject: [MCR] Conditions in the west monashees

    I am working in the western Monashees just south of Three-Valley gap and just NW of Monashee Pass.

    To follow up posts by Jorg and Mark, we are seeing the same thing over here. On my first day of work (Feb 14) I skied 13 runs and between me ski cutting, my group remote triggering, sympathetic releases from avalanches we triggerd, avalanches triggered by the cat as it drove on hard packed flat roads in runout zones we had about 20 avalanches. Things have continued more or less in that vein each day since. Most of these avalanches were small but mostly that was because we were skiing in very small terrain features and on runs that had been heavily skied prior to the last snowfall. Places that have not been heavily skied are producing size 2.5 avalanches (big enough to ding a pickup pretty good and certainly big enough to kill a skier or sledder) on 20 degree slopes. There are many reports of bigger avalanches in areas around us.

    Here we have 3 layers of surface hoar in the top 60cm with the latest one (Feb 8th) being most reactive. Here’s some notable observations:
     – We are seeing deep and rough tracks in the bed surface, so old ski tracks are meaningless.
     – Unless it’s been heavily skied and it’s very moderate terrain, we are seeing recent ski tracks in the slab, so recent ski tracks are highly suspect.
     – We are seeing avalanches on 20 degree terrain so the 30 degree rule is out.
     – Today I triggered an avalanche 35cm deep x 40m wide by 50m long on the Feb 8th layer and the 4th skier across the bed surface triggered a second slide where the bed surface avalanched on one of the deeper layers. So skiing on the bed surface is no guarantee of safety.

    There’s been some natural activity but not nearly enough to clean out all the pockets and all the layers. Over the last four days, it’s been getting a bit harder to trigger these things: on the 14th you just had to approach a slope and it would take off, today it’s often the 3rd or 4th ski cut and part way down the slope before it’ll go. And the slides we are seeing getting a bit bigger every day. North and East aspects above about 1500m seem to be worse but we’ve triggered slides on most aspects and elevations over the last few days.

    I am skiing only in terrain where I know every detail intimately. I am skiing only on VERY small terrain features where I always have a safe exit option. I’m staying off all convex or unsupported terrain over 20-25 degrees. I’m avoiding terrain traps like the plague. I’m becoming more conservative every day.

    Given how shallowly this layer is buried, it is producing impressive results in terms of propagation and avalanche size. It will likely remain unstable for a long while yet. The average active life of surface hoar like this is 3 – 5 weeks and that’s in a normal winter.

    If you want to post this message elsewhere or wish to pass it on, please do so freely.

    Take care and be safe out there.

    Karl Klassen
    Revelstoke, BC

    Sobering stuff, Eh?

  18. Shawn February 25th, 2010 6:07 pm

    I triggered a slide in the annies area earlier this year almost knowingly after we dug two pits we reserved ourselves and dialed it back and went back to annies for safety and midnight accessability and it took the snow to the bad base layer. we were safe and ok. I was wondering from the slope in the caic picture what do you guys think the degree is on this slope. It looks fairly low angle from the picture i could be wrong never been to lindley?

  19. Patrick S. February 25th, 2010 6:13 pm

    Lou, well said. To me a beacon is an essential and obvious piece of equipment for backcountry travel. However, I know many very talented snow riders who get big heads once they’ve strapped it on under there jackets. Everyone I ride with has avalanche education, dig pits, bring all the essential gear, yet are always after bigger and more “extreme” lines.

    I’m the nervous nelly of the group.
    I’m always the devils advocate about geting above tree line before spring, riding steep terrain, etc…

    My veiw is that even if you are skiing/rideing with educated, prepared individuals, you should act like your skiing alone.

    I never, even though I am prepared to, want to have to dig a friend out of avy debris.

    Or have to be dug out my self.

    I love riding snow and being in the mountains, and I want to keep going out season after season for the rest of my life. period.

    I am only 22, not some old guru (no knock to my elders) and have relatively limited experience and as much as I’d love to ride the sick extreme lines we all see in the ski porn these days I dont want to jepordize my ability to go out again tomorrow.

  20. Jordan February 25th, 2010 6:22 pm

    37 degrees according to the CAIC report.

  21. Lou February 25th, 2010 7:33 pm

    Patrick, one of the keys to getting sick big-mountain ski descents is to not live in Colorado, seriously. Guys do it here, but it’s a lot more tricky than other places.

  22. Patrick S. February 25th, 2010 7:37 pm

    Noted, I have bagged a few “narley” lines over the years but most were on corn or inbounds.

  23. Mark February 25th, 2010 9:01 pm

    Amazing how such a “small” slide amassed such a deep debris pile. Frightening.

  24. Thomas B February 25th, 2010 9:40 pm

    Patrick, the longer you live the cooler stuff you will ski. ( look at Lou, who was skiing back when wolly mammoth was the only ski clothing available 🙂 )
    The less pyschological trauma you have from digging out bodies of friends, the longer you will ski , and the more pleasure from it. Keep your thinking long term, it will never fail you. Good job.

  25. John Gloor February 25th, 2010 9:49 pm

    This is an unconfirmed report, so don’t take it as the gospel. I heard through the grapevine that the reason John Kelly was not wearing a beacon was that they were packing out a sled run. They were intentionally not going skiing because the avy danger was so high and they were looking for some fun close to the Hut. I just want to put that out there before people judge his actions without knowing the whole story. I don’t know how valid this is but it certainly explains why an experienced BC skier was without his transceiver.

  26. Taku February 25th, 2010 10:06 pm

    Having 30+ years skiing in the northern Rockies, this is a year to be very aware of conditions and what you are willing to risk. There have been lot’s of much safer years than this over the last 30, so being conservative to have a great year next year is worth thinking about. With one burial and several near misses, plus half a dozen friends who didn’t make it, I think about that every time I head up the track. Thanks for the good analysis Lou, and to everyone who has shared their stories of this winter.

  27. Jonathan L February 26th, 2010 12:04 am

    On at the car off at the bar sounds like a good rule for a beacon. But frankly, it’s cold at the car and I’m dealing with all that equipment and half the time I’m confused anyhow. The number of times I’ve left my GPS on the roof and walked away is staggering. I strap my beacon on when I get dressed before I leave the house. I wear it to breakfast. I wear it on the drive to the trailhead. And I don’t take it off until I’m getting undressed most of the time cause…. I forget I had it on.

    A lot of safety comes down to not having to think because you’ve established a protocol and you follow it.

    This accident was tragic. And more than likely a beacon wouldn’t have made the difference. But it’s getting to the point I don’t ski inbounds without one.

  28. Martin February 26th, 2010 4:16 am

    Absolutely agree with Jonathan about the bacons. I am a ski touring and climbing instructor in the Italian Mountaineering Association (CAI) and we always tell our students that the beacon goes on just under the base layer when they get dressed in the morning. They can take it off when they get to the car.
    We also have reception and transmission protocols for checking the functions of the beacon as the first activity before stepping off for the outing. I am curious to know if you utilise similar protocols in US.
    Naturally beacon and probe search are mandatory elements of the courses which we teach.

    This year in the alps and particular in Italy we have had avalanche victims virtually every weekend, some of them in ski resort areas with people skiing just off-piste and provoking fractures which have resulted in avalanche flow also onto the groomed slopes..

    Again, repeating many of the previous comments – the most important part of your equipment is perched on top of your shoulders – use it well and you will avoid a great deal of dangerous situations.

    Translation of an Italian mountain adage – ” Expert be careful, the mountain doesn’t know how expert and experienced you are!”

  29. Jack February 26th, 2010 5:44 am

    3 killed in Alaska avalanches 13-Feb-2010 in two incidents roughly 50 miles apart in Anchorage vicinity. Much to learn from these tragic events.



  30. Edge February 26th, 2010 8:26 am

    Whoa, that’s pretty spooky. We’ve done several trips up there with our kids and they usually build a kicker right below that slope. This is the “milk run” where you do a few bonus laps at the end of the day. Very easy to see how you could let your guard down there. My sincere condolences to the Kelley family.

  31. Lou February 26th, 2010 8:50 am

    Gloor, that could very well be the case. I guess the lesson in terms of beacons is to pretty much have it on and turned on any time you’re “in country.” Best way to do that is indeed to put it on in the morning and turn it on as well.

    But again, I don’t think the takeaway from this is so much the beacon issue, but rather just how bad the snowpack was on that day and how does one deal with such a touchy snowpack?

    Another thing occurred to me this morning. The root cause of most avalanche deaths is that something critical was overlooked. This can be the result of a mistake, or just plain ignorance, or a sort of combination mistake/ignorance. I don’t know enough about this accident to specifically judge it in terms of the root cause. But looking at the overall avy safety picture in a broad sense (not specific to this accident), sometimes a person simply makes a mistake even though they know better. Like the time I got half way through a tour and realized I’d not turned my beacon on. Protocol and habit are the ways to prevent those kinds of mistakes, and we could all do better by working on that.

    Beyond that, again, the snowpack in climates such as that of Colorado Plateau sometimes gets so hazardous at certain elevations and exposures it’s like a pile of toxic waste and has to be treated as such. In those cases, it might sometimes be better just to stay home, as dealing with this situation requires judgment calls and thought processes that could be beyond what many people are capable of, and I include myself in that.

    Which brings me to another issue, that of huts that require reservations and lock people into compulsion to be there. Sure, the Braun Huts have an avalanche danger policy so you can skip your trip and get a refund. But, because you can’t just stay at those huts when you feel like it, you get locked into this mindset of having a reso and needing to use it, otherwise you might be waiting till next season to get a spot.

    We really should have some huts that are large and have a hut keeper, so people can just show up and get a meal and a place to sleep. Like some of the huts I’ve been to in Europe, they’d book up during peak times and reservations might be required, but they’d have enough capacity to work as first-come first-served at most other times. More, like most huts in Europe, if you showed up and the place was full, they’d at least put you on the floor of the wood room or something like that.

    But just like the uphilling issue, I see a marked lack of vision in the U.S. hut industry as well.

  32. Blue Alpine February 26th, 2010 9:20 am

    Avalanches are no joke. Thanks for covering this story and going into some of your prep techniques – I am clueless in these situations.

  33. Eli Helmuth February 26th, 2010 9:20 am

    Cory: “My big lesson from the year is to not over emphasize an achor (actually numerous anchor’s) ability to stablize a slope. I’ve seen numerous slides this year in “the trees”. (Just look on CAIC’s accident reports from this year and you can see a handful of pics.)”

    Not sure when you last did avy training Cory, but I know AIARE and other course providers have been teaching that trees are weak points in slopes for more than 10 years and that they decrease the strength of a slope. Trees as anchors are an outdated concept that made sense intuitively perhaps but this has been proven false, in fact just the opposite.

  34. Randonnee February 26th, 2010 10:11 am

    “The avalanche does not know that you are an expert.” Andre Roche was attributed this quote, one which I have posted on the wall for over 20 years.

    In the days long ago that I did ski area avy control, I once kicked a windrift on a steep gully that was about 12 ft high, that resulting ‘slab’ would have buried a skier below perhaps3 or 4 ft deep. There are a few similar examples in the old Snowy Torrents books. In the (heavy) snowy Cascades. ‘Only 200 ft.” may produce significant avalanches, such as in 1994 when a “bank sluff (WA DOT quote)” above Hwy 2 at Stevens Pass buried three vehicles and flattened the roof of a Suburban down to the door handles!

  35. David February 26th, 2010 10:24 am

    Very sorry to hear of this accident.

    Lou, I think it was appropriate to include your discussion of your own close call. It helps blunt the knee jerk reaction to focus on mistakes made by the victim and reminds us all of the times when we made poor decisions.

  36. Lou February 26th, 2010 10:43 am

    Thanks David

  37. Smokey February 26th, 2010 11:28 am

    Personally, I think everyone should read this paper. A good eye opener about how we make decisions and how our decision making process can be effected in unconscious ways.


  38. Smokey February 26th, 2010 11:31 am

    I can relate to many of the heustric traps noted in the authors paper above…especially with my own close call earlier this winter.


  39. Matt Kinney February 26th, 2010 11:44 am

    Bummer about the CO incident right outside the hut. Good folks who seemed prepared.

    Speaking of beacons.

    1. I typically prefer people have the beacon as close to the outside of their clothes versus buried under layers of clothes or a “base layer”. This way it is easier to get at for a drill or real search or….. to turn off should you find it on victim in a multiple burial situation…… Sorry Martin ….I disagree with you on where to wear a beacon. It should be as close to your outer layer as possible. You should also make sure your partners know how to turn your beacon off and where it is located on your body. That may sound simple, but with 20 different beacon out there, only John Sheffitz can do that!!

    2. Trailheads suck to do beacon checks. I generally have clients/pals just make sure they work and are turned on. Once everyone is geared up and we have skied for 15 minutes or so, I stop the group and then we can focus our brains on avalanche awareness and do a beacon drill or two. This takes about 15-20 minutes to get everyone familiar with everyones avy gear. I even have folks take out and extend their probes and put their shovels together. Its much cleaner to do this stuff when your are totally geared up skiing along, than next to the exhaust in a parking lot with gear strewn all over.

    We also take this time to chat about conditions now that we are actually in the mts and have skied and poked at the snow. Once away from the cars and at the base of ski route in a safe area, we can get our heads together and concentrate. The trailhead sucks for doing beacon stuff because everyone is all in a hurry getting ready, trying to be first on the trail, not being last, getting boots on, racing, forgetting, etc…its typically cluster chaos and folks cannot focus on awareness.

    Of course if you ski in 30 minutes and your beacon does not work, then you are done for the day and get to ski solo back to the trailhead!

    Speaking of trailheads,,,gotta go 😆

  40. Lou February 26th, 2010 12:21 pm

    Actually, trees as terrain anchors do work in many cases, simple observation bears that out, as you’ll frequently see steep slopes in the trees that have not slid while many others of the same exposure/angle/elevation have. And if you spend years skiing test slopes and such, you can easily see the difference. But the trees have to be quite dense, and the snowpack have enough integrity, to where this can happen. During a year like this in Colorado, I’d agree, even dense trees don’t do much and yes could make it worse.

    Slopes with sparse timber should NEVER be treated as if they were safer then a bald slope, that’s for sure.

  41. KDog February 26th, 2010 12:51 pm

    On the subject of beacon checks, one thing that sometimes gets over looked is a range test. That is testing the search/transmit range of each beacon in the party at least once a week. My wife’s beacon had a broken antennae (they’re fragile to shock) and while it seemed fine in a close proximity test, it’s range was well under 10 meters.

    It has been retired, she took over my Tracker and I got a new Pulse out of it. :whistle:

  42. SB February 26th, 2010 1:05 pm

    I’ll buy that trees don’t do much to anchor a slope. However, they do influence the formation of the snowpack and so timbered slopes will have different characteristics than a bare slope because the trees affect the wind and the sun. I’d expect those slopes would be less or more dangerous at different times.

    In general, though, I’d expect wind slab formation to be less in a tight stand of trees. If wind slab is the problem, the trees should be safer. A sparse or small stand of trees would have almost no impact, though.

  43. Bruno February 27th, 2010 6:12 pm

    I poked around on the east side of the Gores today. At 10,000ft, there is still no base; just 30″ of hollow sugar – and it’s almost March. Skinning was really just wallowing around.

    If/when it ever does snow in this region of Colorado, the avy activity could be historic.

    Trees such as Sub-alpine Fir with lots of lower branches embedded in the snow pack do anchor a solid snow pack, but I have also seen snow around trees turn to facets during prolonged dry spells while the open areas remained solid.

  44. Jonathan L February 27th, 2010 11:34 pm

    Hey Matt,

    I kinda hate the back and forth of forums, but I’m gonna argue the point on this one. I don’t want my beacon anywhere where it’s handy for a drill. I want it as close to my body as possible if I am caught. And if it’s on your body, I don’t want it ripped off cause it’s easily accessible, I want it strapped tight on you, beneath as many layers as possible. I want it to stay on. I want it to be bitch to get off and to get to. I want to be searching for my partner, not the beacon that was easily accessible and is now 10 meters away from him. I think he wants that too.

    I’d rather my safety protocol was for the worst possible case scenario and not for what’s convenient. To quote every bad war movie ever made, “Gentlemen, this is not a drill. This is what you’ve trained for.”

    We don’t train for drills. We don’t modify our safety protocol to make practice easier. We train for the day it all goes to hell.

    Sorry to sound strident, but I think the downside risk is too high for the convenience.

    Ski safe, have fun, don’t spend too much time on the internet 🙂

  45. Carla Wheeler February 28th, 2010 9:35 am

    Jonathan L,

    I agree, after knowing someone whom was taken for a ride down the Highlands Bowl, before it was opened, while taking off a layer after hiking, beacon in outer layer-the force of the slide stripped him of much of his clothing including his watch. He survived. Avalanches and rivers are a powerful and turbulating force. Keeping your beacon on close to the body ensures it will still be there if you do take a ride. Practice getting it out to search just requires practice!

  46. Lou February 28th, 2010 10:15 am

    You DEFINITELY shouldn’t carry your beacon on the outside of your layers if at all possible… if you’re in a T-shirt, that’s one thing, but otherwise…

  47. Matt Kinney February 28th, 2010 3:50 pm


    I prefer a 3-layer system 80% of the time above the waist….Polypro, bibs, shell. I wear my beacon on the outside of my bibs under my outer shell. I carry a puffy sweater, a bomb-proof Das Parka and HyVent upper rain shell as my shell options.

    Sooo….skinning up I eventually shed my outer shell and thus leave the beacon on the outside of everything. I don’t put my beacon under my bibs. That would make it too hard to get at in a pinch. I use “full” chest bibs. This may be where I differ with others who may put the beacon under their bibs. Deja-vu. When the weather moderates a bit, I switch to a full 2-layer system finally getting rid of bibs in favor of light weight shell pants.

    When I ski down, I typically put on a shell layer, leaving the beacon one layer buried, wearing bibs or just light shell pants.

    Not sure if there is definitive evidence/studies of beacons being torn off people in avalanches wether worn on the outside or not.

    With chest straps, pack straps, beacon straps, camera straps, harness straps, it all comes down to …….

    Strap Management. 🙂

  48. Lou February 28th, 2010 6:44 pm

    If it can break my femur it can tear a beacon off. No need to get any more scientific than that. Trees and rocks tend to do things to you and your possessions when you hit the obstacles at 60 or 100 mph.

  49. Njord February 28th, 2010 11:33 pm


    Love the “manned” hut idea…. too bad the Hidden Gems folks would freak out over such a great idea!

    (I’m busy missing Europe: cold beer and a warm hut waiting for you at the end of the day without any Enviro guilt from the Boulder crowd)

  50. Martin March 1st, 2010 8:41 am

    Thanks Jonathan L and Carla for agreeing with me and thanks Matt for your comments.
    I agree that it may be difficult to get at your beacon under clothing but it’s better than the risk of having it torn off. I also see a lot of people removing the beacon so that they can take off a layer when they get hot – typically while climbing on a slope – just the moment in which an avalanche may decide to get it’s act on.

    Concerning the checking of the beacons at the trail head I agree that it can be frustrating and there is the possibility of doing it a little higher up the track, but that’s when the skiers are following a more experienced mountaineer who should remember to do it – guide, instructor etc. As an instructor I want my students to get into the habit of doing something themselves before they set out. If they get into the habit of setting out without doing the check they might later to forget the check or even to turn the beacon on. Much better a little frustration than walking around without the beacon on. I or someone like me is not also going to be there for them.

  51. Martin March 1st, 2010 8:42 am

    that was “not always going to be there for them”. :blush:

  52. Kidd March 1st, 2010 9:19 am

    Conservative is fine, but how bout skiing the resort and stay out of backcountry??

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