From the science of snowpacks to courses in avalanche safety, the field of snow studies is at least as vast as the San Juan Mountains, where an in-depth understanding of the white stuff can mean the difference between life and death.
The avalanche on Wednesday, Nov. 25 in Ophir, from which brothers Alex Holmes, 27, and Brian Holmes, 26, managed to escape, was the first such incident of the season — and, San Miguel County Search and Rescue team member John Miller hopes, the last.
“We’ve gone entire seasons where Search and Rescue hasn’t been called, and we have seasons where we get called 10-plus times. Most avalanche accidents are resolved without ever involving anyone else,” Miller said, explaining that companion rescue is the most common way people escape avalanches alive.
“We probably average five calls a year,” he added.
The Ophir avalanche required the full SAR team to be paged, but “as usual, it was resolved while we were still driving, which is our favorite type of scenario,” he added.
Other calls don’t turn out so well.
“Really, you’ve got about 15 minutes [in an avalanche]. When SAR gets called, we don’t say it out loud typically, but in the back of our minds, we’re going on a body recovery,” he said.
While there are thousands of avalanche zones scattered throughout the San Juans, Miller said Bear Creek is the area closest to Telluride that causes the most concern for the local Search and Rescue team.
“It’s really steep terrain you access immediately from the ski area. We’re skinning up right near or next to where we’re going to ski. … They call it ‘the graveyard’ for a reason. [There is] steep terrain, plus easy access,” he said.
Risks exist, of course, in the mountains between Trout Lake and Ophir — “true backcountry,” Miller called it — but those areas are harder to access, so “people who don’t know what they’re doing don’t tend to get out there as much,” he added.
Deputy Todd Rector of the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office emphasized that avalanche safety can’t be learned overnight.
“Entire lifetimes have been spent studying the science of snow safety. Beginner classes (level 1) alone, just as an example, are week-long intensive programs,” Rector said.
However, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center does offer tips and resources for those who need a refresher on venturing into the backcountry.
The three tips the avalanche safety center highlights are: to check the weather and current conditions — updated daily on its web page and Twitter feed — to educate oneself through an avalanche safety course and to make sure everyone in the group has and knows how to use the proper equipment: beacon, probe and shovel.
“A little bit of knowledge and information on current conditions can go a long way,” said Ethan Greene, director of CAIC.
“The best predictor for future [avalanche activity] is current avalanche activity. Cracking in the snow, if you’re waking along the ridgeline, that’s a sign that avalanche conditions are ripe — and audible collapsing sounds,” he said.
Statistically, Greene added, most of the people who die in avalanches in the United States are men in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s.
Perhaps ironically, “most people who die in avalanches are really good at their sport,” he said. “They spend a lot of time learning how to travel in the mountains.”
He believed the brothers involved in the Ophir avalanche represent this type of athlete.
“The San Juans are an amazing place,” he said. “There’s a lot of avalanche-prone terrain and a really long history of people getting involved with avalanches. … But there’s also some incredible recreation we have there.”
Resources for avalanche and snow education are available at the following websites: