Greater prevalence of twoway radios in the wintertime backcountry has helped improve safety among recreationists. Skiers and snowmobilers communicating with other members of their group may prevent mishaps — or avoid worse outcomes when emergencies occur.
Crested Butte Search and Rescue (CBSAR) is taking that idea a step further — by establishing and promoting use of a specific channel for communication between separate groups in the local backcountry. That channel — 7, or main channel “7,” sub-channel “0” — can be used in a wide range of scenarios to help ensure safety of backcountry goers.
The concept has been utilized elsewhere, including the popular Bear Creek sidecountry adjacent to Telluride ski area — where the terrain frequently sees groups of skiers on the same slope.
Randy Felix, president of CBSAR, looked to Telluride as a model for similar protocol near Crested Butte.
“Basically, it’s just a common backcountry radio channel that any backcountry user can use to communicate with each other in the backcountry,” he said.
For example, let’s say a group of skiers is preparing to ski a slope but can not see if anyone is below them on the slope. The group could radio to notify others where they are and what they’re about to ski so they don’t inadvertently trigger an avalanche that places another group in danger.
Or, the channel could be useful if a skier is headed to her favorite backcountry ski run. She arrives up and sees a handful of snowmobiles already there — indicating others are likely skiing the same zone. She could use the channel to learn who else is skiing in the area and where they’re located.
“We’re also saying it potentially could be used in the event of an emergency — if there’s an accident and you don’t have cell coverage or you can’t get out to call 911,” Felix added.
However, he advises a specific order of operations for notifying authorities in the event of an emergency: 1) try to call for help via a cell phone; 2) try to text; 3) engage a SPOT tracker or other satellite communication device;
4) attempt notifying others via radio for them to relay a message to authorities.
“We don’t want people to get the idea that it’s a monitored channel,” Felix explained. “The only people who may be listening are other users in the area.”
He noted that the channel also could be used to notify others of pertinent information — such as avalanche concerns, a slide that’s been triggered or that an avalanche occurred but all are safe.
“Right now we just want to keep it simple and get the word out,” Felix said. “We’re seeing a lot more use in the backcountry these days. Whether it’s snowmobilers or skiers, those are the two big user groups we see.”
CBSAR is 25-30 active members strong. However, the group is called out much more frequently in summer months than winter.
“Our backcountry users are pretty savvy,” Felix said. “A lot of times there will be companion rescue. We’ve had some skier injuries, a couple snowmobile accidents and a handful of avalanche fatalities over the years as well.”
Crested Butte Avalanche Center Executive Director Ben Pritchett sees value in the common backcountry channel.
“I think in general anything that helps improve communication between parties in the backcountry is a good thing,” he said.
Still, Pritchett sees potential for confusion in coming years if the channel becomes so popular that multiple people are talking over one another.
Telluride has established separate channels based on zones for that very reason — to eliminate an inordinate amount of chatter. Felix offered that the same approach could be taken in the Crested Butte area if the common channel is welcomed and well-used.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)