Despite single-digit temperatures and double-digit wind gusts, hundreds of people gathered along the Snowy Range Scenic Byway the morning of March 4 as a jumping-off point for a variety of winter adventures.
The pull to the backcountry on the late-winter morning was the promise of fresh powder new enough that it was sitting still undisturbed on tree branches. Gusting wind and frigid temperatures aside, it was a fine day to be in the high country, whether your preferred mode of travel was motorized or non-motorized.
One small group of a couple dozen people had education on their minds, not recreation, but the hubbub in the mountains was a reminder why they were thinking about learning avalanche safety in the first place.
“We have a large recreating community in Laramie,” said Jerry Hamann, a member of the Medicine Bow Nordic Ski Patrol, who was teaching the introductory avalanche safety class.
The ski patrol teaches several courses each winter on avalanche safety and backcountry travel. The group that ventured into the Snowies last weekend was completing a day of field work as part of their class. They spent the day practicing using avalanche beacons and analyzing snow conditions on the hillside above Libby Creek.
The Medicine Bow Nordic Ski Patrol, a division of the National Ski Patrol, is one of two ski patrol groups operating in the Laramie area. The Snowy Range Ski Patrol handles weekends at the Snowy Range Ski Area, while the Nordic ski patrol focuses on backcountry safety, Patrol Director Bob Howell said.
“We’re the eyes and ears of the forest in the backcountry in the wintertime,” he said.
The group, which has about 20 members, reports on trail conditions in the Snowy Range, provides first aid services at local Nordic ski events, assists with search and rescue and educates the public.
Group members must complete an outdoor emergency first aid class before they can join.
Students in the avalanche class hiked about a mile to a high point overlooking the Libby Creek drainage to begin their field work. As they traveled across a hillside, Hamann pointed out conditions that might indicate a need to be wary, such as trees missing limbs or leaning downhill. In one glade, he noted shady conditions that might prevent snow from settling and gaining strength.
“That’s definitely a pause of caution as we traverse across on the trail,” he said.
After reaching the edge of a meadow, students split into two groups. One group headed for an overlook above the steep slopes leading down to the creek, where they dug snow pits to examine layers in snowpack.
As Howell explained, the snowpack in this region has the potential of having a layer of weak, shallow snow at its base, called a depth hoar. For those looking to avoid an avalanche, it’s not a good sign.
“A lot of the slides take place on that, and it can persist for a long time through the winter,” he said.
Fresh snow and high winds were other factors to take into consideration, he said.
“A crusty wind surface can again act as a sliding surface,” he said. “They’re looking for those sorts of things in the pack.”
The aim of an avalanche safety class is to teach students how to avoid dangerous situations, Howell said. Students also learn avalanche rescue skills, in the event that the worst-case scenario does occur.
At a nearby site, the other half of the group practiced locating avalanche beacons buried in the snow. Each student was wearing a transceiver and carrying a probe and a shovel.
Each transceiver was able to pick up a pulsed radio signal from other transceivers in the group, allowing students to locate those that were hidden.
“If you have no idea where someone might be, it draws you in fairly closely,” Hamann said. “That’s an amazing use of technology.”
Student Nick Needles said he decided to take the class because he spends a lot of time skiing in the backcountry.
“I figured it would be a good chance to educate myself on snow safety and rescue,” he said.
Hamann estimated about 40 people take classes each winter taught by the Medicine Bow Nordic Ski Patrol, either through the University of Wyoming or in the community.
“It’s a service for the community for making better decisions in the backcountry,” he said.