Snowmobilers learn avalanche awareness at clinic
January 11, 2010
It was an area that Ron Dellacroce, an experienced skier, considered a fairly mellow run.
He carved three or four turns into a face at Steamboat Springs Ski Area two years ago, before landing on a groomed road and turning to admire his tracks behind him.
Before he knew it, a wall of snow knocked him to the ground.
"The whole thing just came down on me," he said. "It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to just pound me into the ground."
At the moment he stood up, waist deep in the soft slough of the slide, he realized that snow dangers lurk in even the most unlikely of places, necessitating awareness and respect for the power of nature, whether on skis, snowshoes or a snow machine.
"If you're going to take it for granted, you're going to lose that bet," he said.
On Saturday morning, with temperatures well below zero but the sun shining on the face of Black Mountain behind him, Dellacroce spoke animatedly to a group of 20 snowmobilers.
Park manager for Yampa River State Park and Elkhead Resevoir, Dellacroce teaches an annual clinic on the dangers of avalanches, snow science and rescue techniques at Freeman Trailhead north of Craig, a popular outdoor recreation spot.
Sponsored by the Northwest Colorado Snowmobile Club of Craig and Colorado State Parks, the clinic is a brief overview on how to travel safely in avalanche terrain, specifically on a snowmobile.
Dellacroce said snowmobilers especially are susceptible to avalanches and snow dangers because their machines are loud, heavy and fast.
Those who travel in avalanche terrain, he said, also tend to be chasing an adrenaline rush, pushing further and further into steep and dangerous terrain.
He never told his students to avoid riding their snowmobiles, but urged them to take observations, knowledge and intuition into consideration.
"Don't just blow out of the parking lot to go rip it up," he said. "Take a few minutes, stop and think. Then you can play for the rest of your life instead of having your career shortened."
Dellacroce gave a brief lecture about snow conditions and how this year's dangerous snow pack is one of the worst in decades.
Rotten or "faceted" snow particles at the base of the snow provide the perfect bed surface for an avalanche under the weight of a person or snowmobile, he said.
He also stressed the importance of bringing avalanche safety gear on rides, which includes an avalanche transceiver to locate buried victims, a probe and a shovel to dig them out.
David Decker, 23, of Craig, had his avalanche beacon strapped to his chest as he wandered around the meadow next to Freeman Trailhead, searching out a buried transceiver, which represented a victim.
An avid snowmobiler and self-described adrenaline addict, Decker said the event was his first avalanche clinic.
"You can have these things," he said, patting the device on his chest. "But they're completely useless without knowledge."
He said he is often tempted by steep faces that could hide potential dangers, and he knows he probably has gotten lucky a few times.
But he said it's important to keep your head on straight and not let adrenaline cloud common sense when traveling in the backcountry.
"It's just good to know," he said. "If someone' s life is on the line, you want to know what you're doing. You can never know enough."
He said a lot of friends he rode with did not have beacons, which can cost between $200 and $400. Still, he said, most of those people have spent nearly $10,000 on a fast, powerful machine.
Dellacroce warned against the mentality of feeling invincible atop a machine and that even experienced and skilled riders have been caught and killed in avalanches.
Before the snowmoilers dispersed for a morning ride and some extra beacon training, he told them to continue to expand their awareness and knowledge beyond the clinic.
"Practice more than just today," he said. "Take a six-pack and go bury it in the yard with a beacon and practice finding it. It's a lifelong thing. Every year is different, so just keep learning and learning and learning."