backcountry

Digging snow pits in the field with the Telluride Avalanche School. (Courtesy photo)

On the heels of the severe drought that robbed the San Juan Mountains of snow last year, winter has returned to Telluride.

Starved of powder days and deep turns, skiers are rejoicing — and some have already ventured out to pick off early season backcountry lines. But before skiers bound into the backcountry with too much enthusiasm, experts urge them to be equipped, educated and prepared for the area’s notorious avalanche danger.

In Telluride, a host of resources are available throughout the winter to help skiers and other outdoor recreationists meet all those needs.

For those looking to find (or offload) some of the gear that will get them off piste, the San Juan Field School and Jagged Edge are hosting a backcountry gear swap this weekend. The swap will feature alpine touring gear, splitboards, ice climbing gear and other winter-related equipment. Twenty percent of the proceeds will support the nonprofit Telluride Avalanche School’s avalanche education programs in Telluride schools.

“It’s a great opportunity to pick up some gear,” said Telluride Avalanche School board president Tara Butson. “We’ve got touring gear, snowshoes, beacons, probes … we’ll take any of that as long as it’s in good working order. Tents, backpacks, ice climbing gear, you name it.”

Drop-off is today (Friday) between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.; the swap takes place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pick up of money and unsold items will take place Sunday from 2-5 p.m.

And the swap is just the beginning of the backcountry offerings. For people looking to bone up on their backcountry knowledge or take an accredited course, there are several options. The Telluride Avalanche School is offering Level 1 and 2 avalanche education courses, as well as hosting its free Monday night Avalanche Education Forums in Rebekah Hall, offering free beacon search clinics at the base of Lift 7 and taking all local 8th graders out into the field for hands-on training. The Silverton Avalanche School also offers avalanche education in the neighboring mountain community, with courses that range from intro Pro 1 to a women’s specific class and Level 2.

Avalanche education is widely considered mandatory for people traveling in the San Juans’ backcountry. Dry snow, solar radiation and cold nights conspire to create layers of dangerous instability and what’s known as a “continental” snowpack, and many local and visiting skiers have been swept up in backcountry or sidecountry avalanches.

“Between those three things it really creates a unique snowpack that’s unpredictable, unfortunately,” Butson said.

Avalanche education courses and forums go into the mechanics of the San Juans’ dicey snowpack, help students learn to identify avalanche hazards and teach them how to use rescue equipment such as probes and beacons.

Butson says she would encourage anyone who wants to spend time off the ski resort to get educated.

“Even if you are going snowshoeing or snowmobiling, living here it’s not a bad idea to have some knowledge in it,” she said. “I encourage anybody, if you are going to live here and play here, to get it.”

Butson said people are definitely excited for the return of winter — and skiers are already triggering slides. Five people were caught in an in-bounds avalanche at Jackson Hole last weekend. All survived.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, avalanche danger in the Northern San Juans is currently moderate.

For up-to-date information on the state’s snowpack, weather forecasts and more avalanche resources, visit avalanche.state.co.us.