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Telluride Mountain Club initiative to open communication in avalanche territory

A new initiative by dedicated backcountry skiers is hoping to make the Bear Creek backcountry area – the deadliest location for skiers and snowboarders in all of San Miguel County, according to the Sheriff’s office – a little bit safer.

The Telluride Mountain Club is promoting the use of radios in the Bear Creek area so that backcountry skiers and snowboarders can talk to one another about location, conditions and avalanches if they do happen.

“Hopefully we’re going to help avoid accidents. And if things do happen, we’ll get a faster response. We’ve been really, really lucky in Bear Creek the last 10 years or so because there have been a number of significant accidents where [rescues] have been incredibly convenient,” said Jagged Edge Mountain Gear store manager Jon Miller, who is also a member of the San Miguel County Search and Rescue team.

In February 2009, skier Eric Zuaro triggered an avalanche in Bear Creek, slid more than 1,500 feet and was fully buried for more than five minutes. Luckily for Zuaro, heli-skiing guides were nearby and dug him out, performing CPR until he could breathe again on his own.

Another skier fell down the San Joaquin couloir last year, Miller said, and was able to shout to ski patrol for help.

Others haven’t been so lucky. Expert snowboarder Nate Soules was killed by an avalanche in Bear Creek in February 2012, rattling the community.

This season some of the area’s most seasoned backcountry athletes are trying to find a way to make Bear Creek safer. The radio initiative is the brainchild of Matt Steen, who used to be an avalanche forecaster and is now a guide with Helitrax.

Steen said the effort is a very grassroots movement so far.

“It’s an experiment. We’re going to see how it goes,” Miller said. “Ski patrol is going to be unofficially monitoring it. We’re planning on monitoring it down here. We’ll see how it works. We’re just trying to make everything safer.”

Jagged Edge negotiated a deal with Back Country Access to provide a 30 percent off discount to Telluride Mountain Club members for a link radio that can be used in Bear Creek. For those on a budget, Miller said there are cheaper options out there, too.

“You don’t have to have the fancy BCA radios. It’s a family channel radio, so a Motorola talkabout radio that you buy at Wal-Mart for $25 uses the same channels that these radios do,” he said.

BCA Radio

Backcountry Access Link Radio

San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, whose search and rescue teams often respond to accidents in the Bear Creek area, said that he worries about inexperienced users heading in to Bear Creek and getting themselves in trouble.

Last week, a skier and snowboarder got cliffed out in Bear Creek after taking a wrong turn and ended up spending a cold night in the backcountry before a rescue crew reached them the following morning.

“There are so many people skiing Bear Creek right now, it’s only a matter of time before we have another fatality,” Masters said. “We’ve had people who are really good mountaineers, who dug a pit, looked at it and realized [avalanche conditions] were really bad, and then skied it anyway and got killed.”

Minutes before his interview with the Daily Planet, Masters said that a natural avalanche roared through Bear Creek on Friday, but it looked like no skiers were involved.

“There’s really nothing more important than what is in between the two ears of the skier,” he added.

That warning being said, Masters expressed support in theory for the radio initiative.

“If they were to have enough radios back there so everyone skiing in the backcountry could tell each other that, ‘Hey, I’m down below you,’ they might be able to communicate a little better and help each other out. It certainly seems like an interesting thought,” he said.

Miller said Jagged Edge has sold between 16 and 20 radios so far this season, and he hopes that number will continue to grow as people buy into the experiment.

“We just want to keep getting the word out,” Miller said.

The Bear Creek access channel is 4-4 and the Ophir channel is 4.

-By Mary Slosson, Associate Editor at the Telluride Daily Planet
[This article first appeared in the Telluride Daily Planet on January 4, 2015]

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Telluride Mountain Club advocates for safe, accessible, enjoyable and respectful opportunities for human-powered recreational activities in the Telluride region, through education, awareness and collaboration.

Telluride Mountain Club is a 501c3 nonprofit organization.