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Outside with Charlie: Avalanche awareness

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From page A8 | February 12, 2014 | Leave Comment

Ferris_Charlie

Winter has returned with a roar thanks to a freight train of storms that graced us over the last week.

If you’ve been here very long, you know that predicting what winter brings is risky.

The storms came in with lots of moisture and higher snow levels. The Pineapple Express has rolled over us before and while I’d rather see lots of snow where I live, right now lots of rain is really nice.

In checking the resort websites, a long list of them were closed despite all that new snow. The reason according to Sierra-at-Tahoe PR guy Steve Hemphill?

Avalanche concerns.

Sierra’s primary concern, always, is safety. They evaluate everything, every day up there. Everyone who skis at Sierra benefits from this. It’s what the other resorts do as well.

The avalanche danger was described as extreme at Kirkwood, one of the many closed resorts. Every day, at each resort, a group of ski patrollers check the terrain for any number of things.

Avalanches are unpredictable and also unstoppable once they’re triggered. They stop when there’s no more energy to continue carrying them. What the ski patrollers do early in the morning is assess the places where the terrain and conditions are likely to produce an avalanche.

Some of those spots are known avalanche chutes, some aren’t. The patrollers lob what amounts to a type of hand grenade onto the slopes with the intent of triggering an avalanche. While they are very experienced in doing this, now and again the snow takes over and one of them gets hurt, sometimes to a fatal degree. Fortunately that is a rare occurrence.

When they are done blowing snow up and making sure the probability of an avalanche is very slim, they check the runs for any other kind of obstacle.

By the time you pack up your gear and head up to ski, the safety factor at your chosen resort has been tipped heavily in your favor thanks to the Ski Patrol people.

If you are a back country skier, none of that kind of human intervention takes place. While you might run across someone from the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol, or the Tahoe Nordic Ski Patrol, out there, they don’t lob explosives onto anything. What they do is offer avalanche awareness courses and are your best friends in the back country.

In the back country, being prepared is an absolute necessity. It’s up to you to check avalanche conditions. The Sierra Avalanche Center (sierraavalanchecenter.org) is the place to check before you go anywhere out there. Knowing what to look for and more importantly, having the common good sense to stay out of dangerous territory, is vital.

With the return of Old Man Winter, who we hope stays around for the rest of the season, more of us will head out to ski, cross country ski, snowboard, or snowshoe. Just remember safety really does matter.

Bundle up, gear up, and get outside!

Charlie Ferris

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