The Right Frequency: How Radios Save Lives in Telluride

Photo: Dropping in to Upper Bear Creek with San Joaquin Peak (and Couloir) in the background.

In recent years, radios have been incorporated into backcountry riding cultures around the globe, most recently in Telluride, Colorado, where backcountry community leaders are encouraging all those riding in Bear Creek to use radios and get on the same channel. The BCA BC Link system is proving to be a valuable tool in preventing unintended human hazards from above. Locals have adopted a Bear Creek radio channel (currently channel 4, privacy code 4) to share info and prevent riders from dropping in on each other.

While it’s open to the public and easily accessible from Telluride resort, Bear Creek has often led unprepared out-of-bounds skiers into big trouble. Most of the winter finds the Bear Creek avalanche hazard as high or considerable–and respect for the terrain is even higher. The terrain is blind, complex and terminates in a dead-end drainage. This is no place for the competitive jockey habits of the Wasatch or Tetons. Skiing on top of another group poses a major hazard.

Matt Steen, former San Juan forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, saw the need for a flexible, on-mountain group-think and has led the push in the last few years to get radios in the hands of both locals and visitors. “To be able to communicate with your group is an advantage, but communicating with everyone in your slide path or zone is invaluable. Thinking beyond our periphery and sharing good information gives us a big picture perspective.”

This attempt to integrate radios into backcountry habitude is a relatively new and powerful tool in avalanche avoidance. All the other tricks in our backcountry kits act in response to avalanches. As international ski operations specialist Doug Krause puts it, “We need a paradigm shift. Beacon, shovel, probe, airbag; these are all tools for managing an accident that has already happened. Radios are a tool for preventing accidents.” While radio protocol and practice in the Creek are still in their formative stages, this atmosphere is the perfect proving ground to work out the kinks and provide a model for other avalanche-prone areas.

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Image: Bear Creek Terrain in Winter, by Google Earth

“Everyone that ventures into avalanche terrain should strive to optimize communication with their partners,” said Krause. “Radios are the only effective way to communicate at a distance. Without them, you’re just some crazy dudes hooting and hollering at the forest and mountains.”

Bear Creek veteran Chris Drew agrees. “Radios allow me to stop in better safe spots and communicate when I lose sight of my partner.” Recently, Drew used radios on location to coordinate a ski descent with his crew and another group in two adjacent, walled-in couloirs that shared the same runout. With this vital information link, these groups shift from being adversarial (or completely blind to the other party’s existence) to collaborating toward a common goal. Instead of guessing and rushing a decision, groups with information can make good calls.

The classic conundrum in the Creek occurs when your partner rolls in, goes out of sight and you can’t see the bottom of the slide path. What to do? The old “20 second count” doesn’t work if your buddy gets caught in an avalanche. It also doesn’t work if you drop in and trigger a slab on top of your unknowing partner. Concise radio communication removes the ambiguity.

When prevention fails and injury or avalanche strikes, a well-executed rescue can save a friend. This may be the biggest advantage to having a community empowered with radios and connected through a shared channel such as that used in Bear Creek. While a quick companion beacon rescue and solid shoveling technique are first and foremost, coordinating with other parties in the area could mean the difference between a night out and getting to safety.

Of course, there are pitfalls when tools are misused or used in place of sound situational awareness. Any rig is only as good as the monkey behind the wheel. The Telluride Mountain Club (TMC) and local skiers and riders are working through this process as they go. “The first step is getting everyone to carry radios,” says Steen. “The next step is to get everybody on the same channel. The final step is building consensus, developing simple protocols and getting everyone to participate.”

Community forums hosted by TMC offer an opportunity for folks to weigh in. Trial and error in the field provide direct feedback, which the community learns from together. The hope is that the shared channel will be the “running channel” for all groups. (Any long-winded and non-emergent conversations should take place on a predetermined “work channel” to minimize distraction for other radio users.) As these norms develop, a reliable system of communication will follow.

When asked how radios are most effective, Drew offered this, “Keep it short and to the point. Share info that relates to the current problem and plan to find a solution. Observe, think and then talk.” It is true that a radio has the potential to become a karaoke mic. If we let our own guard down, a radio is a false security blanket. But this comes with the territory when in avalanche terrain; just because a face didn’t slide under someone else doesn’t mean it won’t slide under you. Armed with avalanche training and carrying the right gear, the BC Link is an invaluable tool for gathering intel and executing the plan. Good information is the nutrition of aware minds, and with it comes better-informed decision making in avalanche terrain.

For a summary of common radio protocols, see “Two-Way Radio Protocols for the Backcountry Rider” in our handout, Human Factors and Group Communication.