beacons

One of the two beacon checking stations placed at backcountry access points on Gold Hill. (Courtesy Photo)

After years of discussion, beacon checking stations at backcountry entrance points around the mountain have come to fruition. The stations are a collaboration between Jagged Edge Mountain Gear, the Peter Inglis Avalanche Education Fund (PI Fund), U.S. Forest Service and Telski.

"They're essentially going to be activated automatically by your transceiver or not. We've always had plenty of signage up there, but now it is totally unmistakable that it's a decision point, and you're leaving the ski area and entering the backcountry. The beacon checker forces backcountry users to think it through and check if their rescue gear is operational," said Jon Tukman, Telluride Ski Patrol snow safety manager and PI Fund board member.

There will be a total of four checkers on the mountain. Last week, two checkers were placed on Gold Hill. A third checker will be installed on Bald Saddle next week, and a fourth will be at the top of Lift 9 once a power issue has been resolved, Telluride Mountain Club Executive Director Heidi Lauterbach explained.

The PI Fund, a subsidiary of the Telluride Mountain Club, initiated and coordinated the project. While the idea of installing beacon checking stations has been a topic of discussion at board meetings since the fund's inception in 2016, there was some confusion around who would approve the project.

"Was it a ski area thing? Or was it a United States Forest Service thing? Because of that, the project sort of got convoluted," Lauterbach said.

Last winter, the PI Fund was able to bring the project back into focus and make it a priority.

"With the pandemic and what everybody experienced the summer before, it was obvious that the backcountry was going to become busier, so we brought the topic up. I think it was perfect timing because the ski area realized that there were going to be a lot of people going into the backcountry, off the ski area, and I think the Forest Service realized the same thing. Everybody was on board to make it happen,” Lauterbach said.

Jon Miller, Jagged Edge store manager, recalled a conversation he had with Tukman about the lack of beacon checkers on the mountain. According to Miller, Tukman expressed that one of the only things holding them back was not having the actual equipment. Miller and his team decided to help and purchased the four stations.

"Most of our staff are backcountry skiers. It just seemed like a no-brainer for us to help support backcountry skiing in Telluride," Miller said.

The stations are solar powered and will be maintained through a group effort with all the involved organizations. The signs accompanying the stations are large and eye-catching. The wording is easy to read and understand.

"ARE YOU BEEPING?" the sign asks. Skiers can double-check their beacons to make sure they are not only working, but working correctly.

For those unfamiliar with backcountry skiing, an avalanche beacon, or transceiver, is an electronic device backcountry skiers wear on their bodies at all times. In the unfortunate case a skier is buried in an avalanche, the beacon sends out a radio signal to the other receivers/beacons, which helps those responding locate the skier under the snow.

Already on the resort, there are "Avalanche Beacon Training Parks," like the one between the top of Lift 5 and the bottom of Lift 14 on Lower Woozley's Way. The training station is run by Telski and has been around for years, Tukman explained.

"There are eight remote-controlled targets in there (buried under the snow) that are operated with the control box by the sign. If you go down there you can turn on one or more of those targets and go down and practice your beacon search," Tukman said.

Preparedness is lifesaving in the backcountry, and while beacons are vital, there are many factors people should consider before entering the backcountry.

"It's one more tool in the quiver of people going into the backcountry — be educated, have that knowledge about snow safety. We really encouraged people to have taken an avalanche level one, or at least a rescue course," Miller said.

The stations also stand as a reminder for skiers on the mountain, unaware of the dangers of the backcountry, that they should not pass the checkpoints and stay in the confines of the resort.

In the future, Lauterbach said, there will be a beacon checker station on Lizard Head Pass. That particular station will be a joint effort between the PI fund, the Silverton Avalanche School and Friends of the San Juans.