Denver Bar Association
March 2008
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Backcountry Basics

by Christine Nierenz

The sign on top of Berthoud Pass read, "WARNING BACKCOUNTRY SKIERS: AVALANCHE BLASTING BY LONG RANGE WEAPONRY." Long range weaponry? What exactly was I getting myself into? I thought I had signed up for the "Backcountry Basics" course offered by The Women’s Wilderness Institute — not participating in survival tactics in guerilla warfare. Fortunately, though, I did not have any "long range weaponry" encounters throughout the day, and in fact, the far more dangerous threat is that of avalanches, or "avys" as they are known to those versed in avalanche safety.

Prior to getting to Berthoud Pass, we met at The Women’s Wildness Institute’s offices in Boulder at 8 a.m. There were two guide/instructors, and five students, all of who were coincidentally women. Prior to the beginning of the class, I had felt some apprehension about potentially being in a group of insect-eating, igloo-making, MacGyver-like women who regularly jumped from airplanes during blizzards with snowboards attached to them and snowboarded all

As I learned, not only in the class but by experience later that day out on Berthoud Pass, your water does indeed freeze in the Camelbak tube.

the way into Frisco. Fortunately, though, as we went around the room and introduced ourselves, everyone else had very little experience in the backcountry.

We discussed how to dress for a backcountry trip, as well as the overnight essentials for camping in the snow. In great defiance of the "What to Bring" list provided in advance, I thought I came well prepared with my Camelbak rather than the plastic one-liter drinking containers they suggested. As I learned, not only in the class but by experience later that day out on Berthoud Pass, your water does indeed freeze in the Camelbak tube. One suggestion for using a Camelback was to put a teaspoon or so of Everclear in your water to keep it from freezing. Unfortunately, though, I had not brought any Everclear with me that day.

Thereafter we got into the "introduction" to avalanche safety. Our introduction included evaluating factors such as weather, terrain and snow pack. Avalanches generally occur on slopes with a range of angles between 25 to 50 degrees, with most avalanches happening at 38 degrees. Another interesting statistic was that if it snows an inch an hour for more than six hours, there is a significant risk of an avalanche.

An important consideration in avalanche safety is keeping aware of the slope above you as well as below you. Obviously, if an avalanche triggers above you, you don’t want to be in its’ way. Similarly, you are still at risk for avalanches below you, as you could be traversing on a "slab" of snow which breaks further down the mountainside, but carries you with the rest of the slide nonetheless. Thus, for crossing in front of slopes above you that are prone to avalanches, you’ll want to maintain a safe distance from the potential "runout" from the avalanche. In order to determine a safe distance, you use an "inclinometer" (sort of like a fancy compass) to calculate the "alpha angle."

After becoming educated in the alpha angle and the inclinometer, we headed up to the top of Berthoud Pass. We strapped on our snowshoes, and then (gulp), we headed straight up the mountain, breaking our own trail as we went. In order to keep untouched powder pristine (and safe) for skiers and snowboarders, responsible snowshoers will stick to a path close to the tree line and not traverse back and forth. I also found out that it is a workout in and of itself when you get too close to a tree and fall into a treewell and find yourself up to your armpits in snow.

Halfway up the mountain, we broke for lunch and stomped down a little lunch area in an open area surrounded by trees. The temperature was 10 degrees, which is not your normal picnicking weather. It was recommended to sit on your backpack to stay warmer, rather than sitting in the snow. I was reluctant to sit on my backpack for fear of crushing my granola bars and fruit, and, after all, I was wearing snow pants. I later regretted my decision. I guess these people know what they’re doing after all.

After lunch we made it to above timberline and dug a "snow pit," where a block of snow (literally) is carved away (with a hacksaw looking thing – really, where do you carry a hacksaw when you’re snowshoeing?) and analyzed to determine the avalanche potential. Fortunately the snow we were on there did not have much avalanche potential, or "energy."

Although I’ve never been much of a powderhound, I do have to admit to the allure of the backcountry. The peacefulness, relative solitude, and serene snowscapes appeal to just being up there for the sake of it. Add to that powder like I’ve never seen before, which probably does not have hidden moguls under it, and the draw of the backcountry is understandable, and something I’ll likely pursue – after I get more avalanche training!

The Women’s Wildness Institute offers courses for girls and women on outdoor skills, wilderness living, and backcountry safety in both winter and summer. They can be reached at 303-938-9191, or on the internet at

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