After hearing a fairly disturbing yet apparently common story from my county’s search and rescue team, guys, we gotta talk a little more about winter in Colorado and other high elevation areas across the western US. Listen in for some quick winter hiking tips and also what NOT to do in avalanche country.
Listen to Episode 8: Winter Hiking Tips & Lessons Shared From SAR
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So first, let me read you the post that sparked this conversation, this is from my local search and rescue facebook page – “Today’s rescue page was typical of the problems SAR teams have had recently with novices venturing into the backcountry unprepared. This is the narrative.
A 20 year old Colorado Springs woman went for a short snowshoe from the top of Berthoud Pass. The woman was dressed in yoga pants, a sports bra and a light jacket. She had a water bottle, maybe a light sweater. Her Husky type dog accompanied.
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She became disoriented and, after calling her boyfriend, called 911. Her 911 coordinates put her at the top of an avalanche zone north of Berthoud Pass. She was advised to stay put and wait for rescue. Her cell phone then lost service – either low battery, or no service.
GCSAR started a full response.
The woman, accompanied her dog, decided to abandon her snowshoes and poles (because they caused her to trip and fall) and head downhill. She traveled down a known avalanche chute that has killed at least one person.
At the bottom of the chute she encountered waist deep snow. She was able, somehow, to travel uphill to a switchback on Highway 40.
A passerby picked her up and brought her back to the top of the pass just as SAR members were gearing up to head into the field.
The errors made here are too obvious to enumerate.
Please – educate yourself on backcountry hazards, travel with a partner, and carry the proper clothing and equipment for the environment.”
As they said, the errors here are plentiful but I’d argue they aren’t obvious to everyone, they certainly weren’t obvious to her, or else she wouldn’t have made them. So there are three really big ones that I want to point out here today:
First, if you’re exploring mountains that you’ve never been to before in wintertime – check an avalanche map!! Ask some locals or local forest service what areas are at risk of avalanches and avoid them as if your life depends on it if you’re not trained in any sort of avalanche safety or rescue.
Second, if you do end up in a serious life-threatening pickle – which really could happen to the best of us – accidents and emergencies can happen at any time to anyone, there’s no denying that – but if you call 911 and they give you specific instructions like, “hey stay put exactly where you are so you don’t trigger an avalanche and also so that we can find you now that we know your exact location….” Don’t move. Do not pass go. Do not frolic with your dog. You sit and count your blessings and wait for the rescue team to find you.
And the last thing I wanted to point out in today’s podcast is that yoga pants and a sports bra with a light shirt over it are never appropriate clothing for Berthoud pass, like not even in the summer. I’m only kind of joking there, let me give you some context, the average high temperature in the winter at Berthoud pass is 28 degrees, and that’s on a warm sunny day, that area regularly gets extremely harsh, windy snowstorms with wind gusting well over 40 mph and even broke 100 mph up there this year.
Now, I’m not saying it was 100 mph wind when this girl was up there, but I’m certain it was well below freezing, especially with the windchill so severe frostbite, severe hypothermia and even death from just exposure could have been a very real thing for her.
Ok, that’s my rant/plea for today – please please please be safe out there, do your research ahead of time, ask locals about terrain and conditions before heading out so you don’t get yourself in over your head based on your current experience level and training – and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying never go into avalanche territory, but if you do you want to explore more high peaks via backcountry or snowshoeing, take an avalanche awareness course, take the avy 1 and 2 courses so you’re better prepared, that’s all I’m saying.
For the rest of us who like to hike, snowshoe, and explore in winter conditions but not necessarily avalanche country – I have a virtual Winter Hiking Workshop coming up, be sure to join the Adventurers over on Patreon before March 1 to get in on that, but if you’re listening to this after March 1, that is part of a monthly Hiking Workshop Series that I’m hosting throughout the spring and summer of 2021 where we’ll have workshops on things like trip planning, hiking safety, skills and more – AND you’ll also get 2-3 bonus PDF hiking or backpacking guides each month as well.