On Nov. 6, a backcountry snowboarder – a Denver man and longtime rider in the Berthoud Pass Area – and his dog died, buried beneath a slab avalanche northeast of the summit of Berthoud Pass. The man was the first avalanche fatality in the U.S. and Colorado for the 2005-06 season.
"With the early season and new snow, everybody falls into these traps," said Bill Coar, a Ph.D. student at CSU studying statistics. "We have that early season jones to go skiing. It's easy to go someplace you are familiar with and think you are OK, but there are always a number of factors that can cause instabilities in the snow."
Coar, among 40 other volunteers as part of Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, is one of the unsung heroes of the backcountry. These people cruise the slopes of Cameron Pass on the weekends, carrying with them first aid supplies on well-traveled runs. They are the first response when crises arise. They are also the prominent educators in the community on avalanche awareness.
"There are more people going into the backcountry with a false sense of security. Our primary mission is to provide information to the public," Coar said.
Coar has patrolled for eight years, and with Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol for the past three. As an avid skier for most of his life, Coar became interested in patrolling when he started skiing in the backcountry more often.
"There is something about the backcountry that just draws people," Coar said. "It's peaceful, you really appreciate Colorado for what it is. You have to hike for your turns, and it makes it that much better and more fun."
In addition to patrolling on the weekends, Coar teaches courses for Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol.
Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol began in the 1990-91 season as a backcountry education, emergency care and rescue organization. As part of the regular duty cycle, the patrol maintains a snow station at the Zimmerman Lake Trailhead, which is used by local skiers as a reference point, as well as the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for current snow conditions in the northern mountains.
Through the first decade of its existence, the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol has provided public education in avalanche hazards and mountain travel to more than 600 members of the public, to build an educated and safe population of snow enthusiasts.
"Certainly skiing in the backcountry always has its risks. But people need to get out there and see risk assessment of situations through taking classes," said Bill Cotton, director of the ski patrol.
Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol offers two to three avalanche courses every winter, January through March, teaching students how terrain, weather and snow pack contribute to avalanche hazards.
Classroom and field sessions allow students to become acquainted with human factors, which affect decision-making skills.
They also offer mountain travel and rescue, outdoor emergency care and ski and toboggan courses for extensive avalanche education.
Local shops such as EMS, REI and the Mountain Shop offer basic avalanche awareness courses. Coar said these are good refreshers, even if you are already certified.
"The most important thing to bring into the backcountry is your own brain and thinking about where it is you are, and what is going on around you," Coar said.
There are many hazards to look out for, especially in the early season.
"This time of year is dangerous, ironically because there is not a whole lot of snow yet. In Colorado, why we have the highest fatality rate is because the snow pack is so thin," Cotton said.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 89 percent of victims are men, most between 20 and 29, and three-quarters are experienced backcountry enthusiasts. Each year avalanches claim more than 150 lives worldwide.
Although avalanche danger decreases statistically as the season progresses, Cotton said this is not always true.
"This risk is ongoing, the conditions, the weather, patterns and snowfall are always changing. In general it gets better in January and February, but you can never let your guard down," he said.
Other preventative measures are to travel in the backcountry with the appropriate equipment, including a beacon, snow shovel, snow probe, maps of the area, a first aid kit and a buddy. Without being prepared, there is a huge risk of death, Cotton said.
Half of all completely buried avalanche victims die within the first 25 minutes, according to Utah Avalanche Center, and 95 percent are dead within the first two hours.
Although these statistics seem harrowing, it does not mean people should completely avoid the backcountry. With the proper tools and training, people can enjoy some of the best snow in Colorado.
Rodney Lae, director of the Outdoor Adventure Program, is a veteran skier and long-time advocate of Cameron Pass since the 70s when it was nothing but a dirt road.
"The terrain is hypnotic. It casts a spell on people because it so close and the snow is so fine. However, even well-intentioned and well-trained people make mistakes," Lae said.
As for Coar, weekends in the backcountry will always be a part of his life.
"It's something I really enjoy doing. It's not work for me," Coar said. "I love to ski and its another way to give back to the skiing culture."
For more information, visit www.diamondpeaks.org.