Colorado is the epicenter for some of the best outdoor recreation available. With such locations as Cameron Pass, Montgomery Pass and Rocky Mountain National Park at their fingertips, students have the resources to enjoy the path less traveled in backcountry winter recreation.
They also have the potential to find themselves in deadly situations.
"Going into the backcountry is a lot more serious in the winter than summer. Colorado is so avalanche prone because there is so much temperature variation. You can't take it lightly," said Clint Estes, a seasoned backcountry enthusiast who works at The Mountain Shop, 632 S. Mason.
Estes said the percentage of people who have adequate experience in the backcountry is dwindling because the population of people going into the backcountry is exponentially growing.
"Now the new and advanced equipment makes it so easy, you get more people who don't have training," Estes said.
The best way to enter the backcountry prepared is to go in with basic avalanche safety knowledge and to know the area well.
"The number one signal for avalanche danger is recent avalanche activity. The one thing to stay safe is to know how to avoid avalanches altogether," said Emily Casebeer, a sophomore natural resource recreation and tourism major, who works at the Outdoor Adventure Program on campus.
Several classes and presentations are offered on avalanche safety, awareness and certification. The program offered a class in February that focused on the fundamentals of avalanche hazard evaluation. The Mountain Shop also holds seasonal safety training.
Listings of numerous avalanche course providers can be found at www.csac.org.
"But just because you've taken a class doesn't mean you can avoid everything," Casebeer said. "In a sense, people who take an avalanche class statistically are those who are caught in avalanches because they think they are invincible."
The best way to prepare for potential avalanche danger is to gain experience by going with others.
The next best preparation is going in with the correct equipment.
The essential tools for entering the backcountry are a snow shovel, avalanche probe and beacon.
"The main reason for this equipment is for avalanche awareness. When somebody is buried in an avalanche, you only have a window of about 15 to 20 minutes to dig them out before they suffocate," said Brian Clark, supervisor at REI, 4025 S. College Ave.
A beacon or a transceiver is worn on the body by all the people in the group and emits an electrical signal that can be detected by other transceivers, allowing backcountry travelers to locate companions if they become buried in an avalanche.
The snow probe is used to pinpoint someone's location and the snow shovel is used to dig the person out or test an area for weak layers in the snow pack.
"Without a beacon, chances of finding someone in an avalanche, even if they are only six inches under, are very slim," Clark said.
The Outdoor Adventure Program rents Tracker DTS Beacons for $12 a day.
"The only problem with renting this type of equipment is that usually people who rent them don't know how to use them," Estes said.
The latest technology approved for use in the United States is the Airpack System Backpack made by Dynafit that has a nitrogen tank inside, and a rip cord that deploys airbags. The idea behind it is to increase one's surface area in an avalanche.
"In an avalanche, the biggest blocks of snow ride on top. The idea is to make you one of those blocks," Estes said.
It is the only backpack that has had a 100 percent success rate in the United States and it is available at the Mountain Shop for $825.
Taking extra food, water and clothing are also basics for any outdoor activities.
Although equipment may help save a life, it is essential to be knowledgeable on backcountry terrain.
The areas to be most concerned about the potential avalanche activity tend to be slopes between 35 and 45 degrees, with little to no trees.
"Slope angle is the first thing you look at in a series of observations and risk assessment," Estes said.
The next thing to assess is snow pack and conditions. A sun-crusted top layer doesn't bond and can hide a weak layer underneath.
"You can be walking on a snow pack that feels secure, but one to two feet below the surface is a weak layer that can easily fracture at the crown and slide," Estes said.
Choosing a route that avoids steep slopes above or below is advised.
"The faces of the Diamond Peaks, where a lot of people ski, are notoriously dangerous," Casebeer said. "If you stay in the trees, you tend to be okay."
Above all, the most important thing to take into the backcountry is a partner or group.
"Always let people know where you are going, what you'll be doing, and how long you'll be gone. It's best to go with someone else, and be prepared for various situations and scenarios," Casebeer said.
For the latest updates on current mountain weather, snow and avalanche conditions, call the Colorado Avalanche Information Center at (970)482-0457.
GRAPHIC: A Level I Avalanche Course is to take place March 11-13 in Red Mountain Pass and registration can be found on www.avalanchecourse.com, or by calling (307) 733-3315 for more information.
Alpine World Ascents is offering training March 11-13 and 25-27 in Rocky Mountain National Park and Berthoud Pass. Information can be found at www.aplineworldascents.com, or by calling (303) 485-1511.