Education, tools keys to surviving avalanches

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DENVER — A deadly avalanche on the East Vail Chutes comes as a reminder of the risks that come with back country skiing.

“This is probably the most dangerous type of snow pack in the world,” said Charlie Ziskin, an experienced back country skier who works for the Wilderness Exchange in Denver.

Despite the danger, Charlie and other avalanche safety experts say a combination of education and technology can help back country skiers avoid hazards and survive in worst-case scenarios.

Ziskin said advancements like avalanche “airbags” can sometimes save lives, though he says they aren’t as reliable in Colorado.

“The idea is that it makes you bigger so that you’ll float to the top of the avalanche debris,” Ziskin said, showing how the airbag can be deployed from a backpack. “But if you are going into a terrain trap, or the snow is coming down on top of you into a narrow gulley or over cliffs, these bags will get shredded.”

Another advancement, known as an AvaLung, can also help someone trapped beneath the snow.

“It contains a valve so that the air that you blow out is expelled away from you and you can bring oxygen in out of the snow,” Ziskin said.

However, he pointed out that the AvaLung doesn’t work if a skier forgets or can’t put it in their mouth, and keep it there, throughout an avalanche.

Edwin LaMair was buried up to his head by an avalanche on Vail Pass in late December. He had an AvaLung, but lost the respirator as the snow was carrying him down the mountain.

“I definitely felt that I might die,” LaMair said.

Instead, it was his brother’s quick digging, and his group’s avalanche education that saved him.

“The most valuable tool you can use in the back country is your educated brain,” Ziskin said.

There are three items that are considered essential for every back country skier: a beacon, a shovel and a probe. Though, Ziskin says even the most basic tools are somewhat useless on their own.

“You have to practice with this equipment,” Ziskin said. “The best avalanche beacon is the one that you are most practiced with, so that you can find a buried victim in less than two minutes.”

Even after you’ve practiced, Ziskin says the key is to use your education to avoid trouble before it starts.

Dr. J.C. Norling, who teaches avalanche safety courses, took KWGN Channel 2 meteorologist Chris Tomer up to the Vail back country just days ago, to show him why testing conditions is critical to planning a safe route.

Norling steered the group away from one path after discovering a persistent weak layer of snow, showing why relying on solid education is safer than putting your equipment to the test.

The Wilderness Exchange in Denver hosts free avalanche awareness clinics put on by the Friends of Berthoud Pass. The next class is held on January 21 at 8pm. Go to for more information.

You can also learn more about avalanche safety training and more extensive courses at: