University of Colorado-Boulder students in the Outdoor Program’s avalanche course dig a snow pit to analyze the snowpack. CU’s Outdoor Program
University of Colorado-Boulder students in the Outdoor Program's avalanche course dig a snow pit to analyze the snowpack. CU's Outdoor Program offers avalanche courses in December and during the spring semester. ( PAUL AIKEN )
If you go

What: RMRG's dry-land transceiver practice

When: 7 p.m. Friday or Saturday

Where: Meet at 7 at Chautauqua Ranger Cottage

Cost: Free

More info: RSVP with Dave Christenson at 303-665-3642 or dave.christenson
@rockymountainrescue.org

If you go

What: Avalanche Transceiver Basics

When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: REI Boulder, 1789 28th St.

Cost: Free

More info: rei.com/boulder

Check the forecast

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports on avalanche conditions daily throughout the winter. Check the report for your zone before you head into the backcountry by visiting avalanche.state.co.us or calling their hotline at 303-275-5360 . Forecasts are usually posted by 7 a.m. online, 7:30 on the phone.

Every year in early December, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group holds an event in memory of a friend who died in the backcountry.


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This year's Joe Despres Memorial Dry Land Transceiver Training is this weekend, and it comes shortly after the tenth anniversary of Despres' death while skiing in a backcountry avalanche west of Eldora, said RMRG spokesman Dave Christenson.

"I don't know anything about Joe's decision making process on his last run," Christenson said. "But I know his transceiver still works."

Avalanche courses, backcountry seminars and practices for using transceivers -- beacons that winter backcountry travelers carry that both send and receive a signal -- happen all winter long in Boulder, but some of the first of the season start this week.

In addition to the dry-land transceiver training at Chautauqua on Friday and Saturday, Dennis Doyle, from the National Ski Patrol, will be at REI Boulder Tuesday night for a talk on avalanche transceiver basics. Friday night, the Colorado Mountain Club will present information on backcountry skiing at REI. And next week, local guide service Alpine World Ascents will offer the first in a series of avalanche safety clinics at Neptune Mountaineering.

Scott Toepfer, a mountain weather and avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which is based in Boulder, said it's not too early to start thinking about either learning or brushing up on your avy-safety skills.

"We see it every year, it's a common misconception -- 'Oh man, I could see grass sticking up out of the snow, I didn't think I had to worry about it,'" Toepfer said. "But people are caught and even killed in avalanches in October and November."

Toepfer said if you look at avalanche fatality statistics in the U.S., Colorado historically leads that list.

"We're almost always out in front of everybody else," he said. "If you look at the statistics, it looks like it's pretty dangerous to recreate in the backcountry in the winter."

But he doesn't like to scare people off of winter backcountry travel entirely, he said, because if you educate yourself, you can do a lot to mitigate the problem.

Around Boulder, there are many ways to learn more about winter backcountry safety. REI and Neptune host free talks, and local guiding services, like the Colorado Mountain School, offer in-depth courses in places like Rocky Mountain National Park.

Toepfer said that while there's a benefit to taking a field avy class later in the season, when there's a more complex snowpack, it's not too early.

"Good instructors are going to take you to places where you can see instability even early in the season," he said.

Toepfer said even if you have an extensive avy education, you're never done learning. And Christenson said practice, like the dry-land transceiver events, will hone your skills.

"If you need to rescue a buried person, you want it to be instinctive, reflexive. And it's not going to be instinctive if you don't practice regularly," Christenson said. "Someone buried is going to be an intensely stressful situation, and it's going to be hard to function efficiently."