Conditions prime for avalanche

Experts warn sledders against dangers of 'highmarking'

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Colorado has more deadly avalanches than anywhere else in the Unites States. Although most people think of central Colorado as the state's primary avalanche danger zone, Moffat County hills pose potential hazards, too.

"Any hill of 30 to 45 degrees has good avalanche potential," said Ron Spencer, a member of the Northwest Colorado Snowmobile Club. On Saturday the club sponsored its annual avalanche awareness training.

Steeper slopes tend to be self-clearing, Spencer said. They avalanche often, so the amount of snow involved in a slide is usually minimal. Slopes with a grade less than 30 degrees can still avalanche, but it won't be that severe.

Two years ago, a Craig resident was killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling near Pagoda Peak, approximately 35 miles east of Meeker. Dan Ovenden was buried by an avalanche 300 feet wide and half a mile long, at about 1:30 p.m. Search and rescue teams recovered his body from under four feet of snow almost seven hours later.

Spencer said that current weather conditions have created prime avalanche conditions. If a couple feet of new snow piles atop hard packed old snow, the new snow could slide off in an avalanche.

Whenever winter recreation enthusiasts enter conditions such as Spencer described, tragic accidents can be avoided if safety equipment is used. Sometimes, avalanche victims are killed by blunt force trauma, when their sled, a rock, or concrete-like chunks of ice strike them during the snow slide. But if a victim survives the initial avalanche, other members of his party can quickly locate them if they wear a transmitting avalanche beacon.

It's wise for anyone spending any time in the backcountry--snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing, or tobogganing--to wear a beacon, Spencer said. When buried, the beacon will transmit a signal to other beacons that will guide rescuers to the victim.

Backcountry enthusiasts should also carry a metal shovel, to dig out avalanche victims, and a probing pole, to find at what depth the victim is buried. Plastic shovels are no good because avalanche snow can be hard as concrete, and the hard snow will bend or break a plastic. But anyone looking to carry less weight can use a branch broken off a tree as a probing pole, Spencer said.

According to information provided by the U. S. Avalanche Center, if a snowmobiler is caught in an avalanche and knocked from their sled, the first thing to do is push away from the sled to avoid being hurt by it. Roll onto your back, because you have a better chance of survival if buried face up. Use swimming motions to stay on top of the moving snow.

As the avalanche slows, thrust some part of your body towards the surface. Victims can be quickly saved if their rescuers see a hand poking through the snow.

The avalanche center reports that "highmarking," or riding on steep slopes, accounts for more than 66 percent of avalanche deaths involving snowmachiners. Clues to stay alert for when highmarking include trees with branches broken off on only one side, hollow-sounding snow, which indicates the collapse of a buried weak layer, and rain and rapid temperature increases, which quickly weaken snow.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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