Earlier this month, Todd Glew stood on top of a body that was buried under nearly four feet of snow.
"It was really creepy, honestly," Glew said.
Glew, who was skiing near the Silver Fork Headwall, in the backcountry outside Utah's Alta Ski Area, had his beacon in hand and was looking for an avalanche victim. Even though the slide had occurred only seconds before Glew arrived at the burial site, the 29-year-old part-time Bend resident said he thought he was looking for a corpse.
Lucking for the victim, Glew, who works for Timberline Mountain Guides, pinpointed him quickly and worked with the buried skier's partner to dig out the buried man. The victim was blue from the cold but otherwise fine. Such instances are rare.
With more and more skiers taking to the backcountry, avalanche education is taking center stage in theaters across the country. Here in Central Oregon, concerned backcountry users are taking steps to mitigate the risk that avalanches pose. Recently, the Central Oregon Avalanche Association worked with others to place avalanche awareness signs at three popular backcountry ski and recreation areas. The sign at Dutchman Flat also has a beacon checker device to further assist skiers and slednecks in safe backcountry travel.
"The box flashes a red X, but turns into a green circle when you're within four feet of it with your transceiver on," said Kevin Grove, a COAA board member who helped facilitate the project. "It's kind of like a green light, but it's also a big awareness thing: Turn your brain on as well."
The signs are now at Dutchman, Three Creeks and Paulina, but so far the Dutchman sign is the only one with a beacon checker.
Grove, a science and engineering professor at Central Oregon Community College, worked with a few of his students to put the beacon checker in place. A battery and two solar panels power the device.
"I thought this would be a great opportunity for students of mine to work on a real-life project," Grove said.
The project is a good one as the signs offer useful reminders like, "Think about the consequences! What will happen if it slides? Travel one at a time! Get out of the way at the bottom!"
Such safety measures, though, are no substitute for backcountry know-how and general awareness. Beacons, probes and shovels are must-have tools when skiing out of bounds, but, when the shit hits the fan, the user best know what to do with such tools.
"It shouldn't be like, 'Put a beacon on and you're going to be OK,'" Glew said.
Grove, a backcountry charger, agrees.
"I highly encourage people to take avalanche level 1 and level 2 courses," he said.
Three Sisters Backcountry Inc., Timberline Mountain Guides (Oregon Ski Guides) and COCC all offer such classes. You can also gain useful tips from the free COAA-sponsored Know-Before-You-Go clinics, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, and again on March 13 at GoodLife Brewing Co. And while COAA does not offer avalanche forecasts, there is a spot on the site (coavalanche.org) where backcountry users can post "observations," a useful tool if you're looking to head out into the hills.
Glew offered more tips that all backcountry users should heed.
"Straight-up practicing—get out and use your beacon," Glew said. "Avalanches are pretty dangerous, you know. They can kill you pretty easily." SW
Know-Before-You-Go: 6:30pm Wed., Feb. 13 and Wed., March 13 at GoodLife Brewing Co.