Colorado sees more avalanche deaths than any other state. A training course at this mountain park hopes to change that

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A sign at Loveland Pass on Hwy. 6 warns backcountry travelers of avalanche control efforts on November 30, 2021.

Colorado avalanches kill six people on average each winter. The death toll doubled to 12 in the winter of 2020-2021 — tying the modern-day state record. And Colorado sees more avalanche deaths than any other state.

That’s where the avalanche beacon training park comes in.

While carrying avalanche safety equipment has become the norm for many backcountry skiers and other recreators, remembering how to use it in an emergency properly is another skill entirely.

So where can one practice for the unthinkable?

At a park just outside of Minturn, now open for its third season, there are eight transmitters that people can practice finding with their beacons.

David Boyd, with the White River National Forest, explained that his agency encourages everyone to take an avalanche training course. But after your class “you might never have a chance to practice until you're in the real situation.”

The park gives people a chance “just to make sure your skills are really sound,” he said.

While these kinds of parks have existed in some ski areas for years, the fact that this one is both public and free sets it apart.

Developed in a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the park is a self-guided experience, with eight transmitters attached to plywood and buried in snow. Using a small control panel, people can turn the transmitters on and off as they practice using their locator beacon to find the signals. Then, they can use their probe to pinpoint the exact locations and dig them up with their shovel.

Boyd said the park aims to get people so comfortable with these steps that they’re already “muscle memory” if someone does encounter an avalanche. 

“You need to find someone pretty quickly,” he explained. “And you don’t want to be trying to remember how to use your beacon when that happens.”

Last winter, many of the people who died were snowshoers, who likely didn’t think they were putting themselves in danger. 

“It's not just beginners” that get caught or killed in an avalanche," Boyd said. “A lot of times, it's experienced people, too.”

Before heading into the backcountry, he recommends always checking the forecast with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

The avalanche beacon training park is a short climb up the slope at the Mountain Meadow Trailhead, next to the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger Station.