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Avalanche awareness: How to make backcountry skiing safer

Emily PalmThe Christian Science Monitor

The wind howls and the temperature plummets to hypothermic levels. Despite the frigid conditions, Shan Sethna is digging a pit in the snow.

"This is a Quality 2 shear," he says, while demonstrating tests that determine the stability of the snowpack.

It is a subzero sunny day at 12,000 feet on a ridge at the popular Colorado backcountry recreation destination Berthoud Pass. Mr. Sethna is taking time from skiing his favorite runs to investigate snow conditions. Gauging the snowpack helps backcountry skiers make decisions to avoid triggering an avalanche, a life-preserving skill that many take years to hone.

Sethna, executive director and founding member of the nonprofit Friends of Berthoud Pass, spends most of his time promoting safe backcountry snow recreation. More than 1,200 people attend FOBP's 10 yearly classroom avalanche presentations, and enrollment for their on-snow field days fills up quickly.

Sethna caught the skiing bug as a third-grader in Italy (his father was a United Nations diplomat). After returning stateside he night skied in New Jersey and went on weekend trips to New York's Catskill Mountains. A circuitous route brought him to Denver, where he now runs a media consulting firm.

While he could be just one of the throng of ski enthusiasts in Colorado, Sethna's nature is to volunteer and rally others.

Berthoud Pass, an hour's drive from Denver, attracts flocks of "off piste" skiers and snowboarders who "earn their turns" by propelling themselves up slopes without ski lifts.

For years a ski area operated on Berthoud Pass, but financial woes prompted its closure. The chairlifts were removed in 2003.

It is also one of the most avalanche-prone locations in Colorado, Sethna says.

In the past decade an average of 11 skiers and snowboarders per year died in avalanches across the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Colorado bears the unfortunate distinction of more avalanche fatalities than any other state.

That Berthoud Pass is close to Denver is both a blessing and a curse. "There are not very many places where you can kill yourself in an avalanche an hour from your bed," Sethna says. He recalls meeting people hiking up the pass without the proper gear. He would say to them, "Hey, people die here. It's serious."

But just warning those he happened to meet wasn't enough. Sethna began to ask himself, "How do we encourage people to go learn more?" The answer lay in teaching skiers the backcountry basics. So in 2004 FOBP began holding workshops to communicate the perils that accompany the joys of skiing untracked powder.

These introductory classes are free of charge. A donation to FOBP is optional. Over the past year attendance and the number of classes have increased dramatically.

Backcountry skiing is increasingly popular. Sales of alpine touring gear have nearly doubled in the past two years, according to Snowsports Industries America.

"There is an obvious need for what we do," Sethna says, pointing to the growing number of 18-to-24-year-olds venturing into the backcountry.

A young man in that age range has the highest chance of injuring himself in an avalanche, exemplifying why Sethna schedules classroom sessions at local colleges. "If we're lucky," Sethna says, "he'll be smart enough to realize he doesn't know anything."

Douglas Scott, a former ski patroller and owner of AvalancheMapping.org, sees the need to expand education.

"There's a total boom in back-country usage," he says, noting that FOBP's outreach has brought avalanche education to a wider community. "The last two years they've had huge turnout," Mr. Scott says. "It's because Shan took over.... He identified this niche." After attending a free FOBP avalanche-awareness session, "Maybe they'll think twice before jumping into that gully," he says.

Unlike skiing at a resort, backcountry skiing does not include the safety net of a ski patrol. The Grand County Search and Rescue volunteer team responds to incidents at Berthoud Pass. Reaching the scene may take two hours, says Greg Foley, the team's field director in Frasier, Colo.

In the backcountry, the best chance of rescue is by a companion, Mr. Foley says, adding that many people can't afford to take a commercial avalanche-awareness class, which can cost $350 or more. "[FOBP is] getting people some good free information…. We appreciate the work."

Sethna harnesses the enthusiasm of FOBP volunteers, linking individuals with more backcountry experience to those with less. "This really is a member-driven organization. I'm just here to make sure the lights don't go out," he says.

Keeping volunteers energized is an ongoing challenge, Sethna admits. But being an FOBP volunteer isn't all serious work.

"I'm a pretty fun person to be around," he says, noting that FOBP knows how to throw a good party.

In the end, though, it's about the love of skiing – in a safe way. Backcountry skiing "is so enjoyable," Sethna says. "I want other people to enjoy it, too, but safely."