Colorado has the most annual avalanche deaths in the United States, and January is the deadliest month. Whether you are hiking up in Breckenridge to ski a bowl, doing a multi-day hut trip, or skiing all of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners, it’s essential to know avalanche safety.

Avalanches generally occur when there are different layers of snow pack on a steep slope.  Although they can happen naturally, often a skier or snowboarder will be the catalyst for a snow layer to slide.

To avoid an avalanche in the backcountry, try to ski slopes that are less than 25 degrees.  Due to a higher probability of sliding, watch out for ridges and windblown slopes.

Do not embark on a backcountry trip by yourself.  Instead, ski in groups of three to five people for safety. If traveling in a pair and one gets caught in an avalanche, there is only one person for two jobs necessary during avalanche rescue – getting help, and finding the person caught in the avalanche.  On the other hand, if you ski in a group larger than five you are more likely start a slide.

Since the conditions are constantly changing, it is necessary to check the current snow pack before leaving for your trip. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is the best place to read up on the snowpack, which can be found at avalanche.state.co.us.

When in the backcountry, make sure that you are carrying the proper tools: an avalanche beacon, a shovel, and a probe. It is not helpful just to carry these along but know how to use them effectively and efficiently.  Do your research and learn how to properly implement these items in the event of an emergency.

If you do get caught in an avalanche, there are some actions that you can take to increase your chance of survival.  Try to move to one of the sides; the center of the avalanche is typically the most powerful.  As your going down, try to grab a tree.

When buried, swim up to the surface.  If you can’t make it to the surface then create an air pocket as suffocation is the biggest threat to your life in this situation.

Use these tips to avoid an emergency in the backcountry, and remember that caution is the best option.

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