Avalanches do not discriminate. And, they don’t just happen to extreme backcountry enthusiasts. Avalanches can happen to those skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, hiking, driving, hunting and bike riding, as well as anyone who can get onto or underneath a steep snow-covered slope.
Since 1950, avalanches have killed more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard, and the state accounts for one-third of all avalanche deaths in the United States each year. The danger signs are often fairly obvious for those that know what to look for.
Just as Hawaiians learn about the dangers of rip tides and shore breaks at an early age, those living, working and recreating in the Colorado High Country need to educate themselves about avalanches. The key source for obtaining this all important up-to-date weather and snowpack information is the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the oldest avalanche forecasting service in the United States.
The seed that would eventually grow to become the Colorado Avalanche Information Center was sown in 1967, when the U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Project in Fort Collins created the Westwide Avalanche Network. Avalanche researcher Art Judson launched Westwide as a data gathering program in an effort to understand climate and snow conditions for hazard assessment and forecasting, along with helping to establish effective and efficient control programs.
Avalanche forecasters assess the potential risk along a particular mountain slope, based on past, current and forecasted conditions. Important factors used to determine the avalanche hazard include new snow or rain, temperature, wind speed and directions and existing snow conditions. This information is combined with a mountain weather forecast to predict the chance that an avalanche will occur in a particular area.
In 1973, Judson and Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame member Knox Williams founded the Colorado Avalanche Warning Program. Under the direction of the Forest Service and with Judson as lead forecaster, this program was a direct outgrowth of many years of research, making use of the field data reported from approximately 35 sites across the state.
The first avalanche forecast center in the U.S., the Colorado Avalanche Warning Program employed the concept of central forecasting, with one main office serving the larger area by receiving data gathered by a network of observers in the field. This central office then analyzed the data and issued daily messages and warning bulletins as warranted.
The program was moved under the umbrella of Colorado state government in 1983, becoming part of the Department of Natural Resources before joining the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Program in 1993. The organization’s nonprofit arm, Friends of the CAIC, was created in 2007 to promote avalanche safety in Colorado and support the recreation programs of the avalanche center.
Williams would go on to develop an avalanche safety program that was unparalleled, while also helping to build the Colorado Avalanche Information Center into one of the most respected organizations in the world. He developed a methodology for archiving weather and avalanche data that has allowed for more accurate mountain weather and avalanche forecasting in Colorado, while also managing to preserve the avalanche center through numerous government budget cuts. He retired from the organization in 2005.
The avalanche center’s Know Before You Go program was created in 2004 to teach people what they need to know to have fun and stay safe in avalanche terrain. Initially developed for middle and high school audiences, the Know Before You Go program has become popular with all age groups.
Designed as a free presentation, Know Before You Go has been approved as a middle school P.E. credit and can be presented in a classroom; school assembly; ski, snowboard or snowmobile shop; community center or anywhere people can gather to watch the powerful one-hour video and slide presentation.
Know Before You Go stresses five steps of preparedness in order to help ensure the safest possible backcountry experience in uncontrolled areas. The five critical “gets” include: Get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the picture and get out of harm’s way.
In addition to participating in a Colorado Avalanche Information Center Know Before You Go program, take an avalanche class and learn how to provide first aid to an injured member of your party. Knowing the different kinds of avalanches, how terrain choices and changing weather impact safety and how to travel in avalanche terrain will minimize your risk in the backcountry.
What you don’t know about avalanches can kill you. Before you head out into the winter backcountry, make sure you Know Before You Go.