Each winter, Colorado assumes a notorious title: The state is home to the highest number of avalanche deaths in the country.
The shifty snowpack found in this stretch of the Rocky Mountains claims an average of six to eight lives per year out of an annual nationwide total of 25 fatalities, according to the Boulder-based Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and it's responsible for scores more close calls and serious injuries.
Colorado Mountain School teaches a Level 1 course, certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, each Friday through Sunday from mid-December through early April, plus Monday through Wednesday once a month. The class is $315. For more information, visit totalclimbing.com.
A few hundred years ago, alpine dwellers blamed avalanches on sorcery, and slides ended in both a debris pile and a witch hunt.
But these days, we know a lot more about what brings slabs of snow crashing down Colorado mountainsides, which is why proper avalanche education is on the rise at outfits such as the Estes Park-based Colorado Mountain School, located roughly an hour's drive from Boulder.
Colorado Mountain School's guides now take more than 300 students per year into Rocky Mountain National Park to learn about the very real hazards that exist in avalanche terrain spanning from the far backcountry to near-resort "sidecountry" or popular "slackcountry" routes, such as those along Loveland and Berthoud passes.
Riders have already triggered multiple slackcountry avalanches this winter, ripping out entire slopesides of heavy, early season snow that forecasters describe as even more unstable than usual. That kind of riding tends to be particularly risky because tracked slopes close to roads lead to a false sense of security, according to Mark Hammond, a Colorado Mountain School guide of 13 years and longtime backcountry skier.
"It doesn't seem so big and bad and scary, but if you're buried under snow, it doesn't matter if your car is 10 feet away," Hammond said while teaching a recent Level 1 avalanche course.
Colorado Mountain School's goal in avalanche education is simple: to equip recreationalists with the tools they need to make good decisions about where they go and how they do it.
But the reality that outdoor educators have to deal with is much less straightforward. Colorado's continental snowpack is built of complex layers that balance precariously along a spectrum of stress versus strength. Even in a beginner course, such as Colorado Mountain School's nationally certified three-day introductory seminar, guides have a lot of ground to cover.
"I've been learning a lot more than I thought I would," said University of Colorado sophomore Abbott Gilbane while attending Colorado Mountain School class in mid-December.
Gilbane, a member of the CU Freestyle Ski Team and an aspiring big mountain competitor, signed up after he skied Loveland Pass without a beacon and realized he was rolling the dice on safety, he said. He registered with five college ski buddies.
CU skiers and snowboarders are exactly the demographic that avalanche educators hope to see on their rosters; males in their 20s account for the bulk of avalanche accidents and fatalities.
Comprehensive training starts with snow science -- knowing how wind, sun and temperature change snowflakes on a micro-scale, forming distinct, unstable layers in the snowpack. But it certainly doesn't end there.
Among other things, practice in assessing terrain angles and the way snow piles up on the leeward side of slopes, plus knowing how to avoid traps that can increase the consequences of a slide, are all crucial to staying out of trouble. So, of course, is learning how to use existing resources, such as the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's forecasts.
Avalanche courses also stress companion rescue, which involves quick work with an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. If recovered in less than 15 minutes, snow experts give buried victims a promising chance of survival -- but their odds drops precipitously with each second beyond that window. There is no cavalry in an avalanche rescue, outdoor educators say. You're it.
When all is said and done, Colorado Mountain School's guides want students to walk away from their courses knowing what questions to ask themselves about avalanche conditions and which answers are red flags. Beyond that, the school hopes to foster a mind-set of doing whatever it takes to make good decisions.
"It's about speaking up in a group or putting your emotions aside even though you really want to ski the 'rad pow,'" Hammond said.
And more often than not, mountain guides say, safety also comes from listening to your gut before dropping in -- particularly when it says "something just isn't right."