Seventy percent of the mountains in Colorado are the San Juans, right in our backyard. The “Magic Juans” extend from Durango to Lake City and Dolores to Saguache and beyond. Because of this massive compression of peaks, the Juans’ incline is much steeper than other Colorado ranges. This makes their potential for slides much greater. From Molas Pass to Red Mountain Pass is a continuous avalanche corridor.
If you do go to the backcountry instead of a ski area that is patrolled by professionals, check in with Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) to make sure the area is safe. Take an avalanche course to learn about terrain choice, hazards, conditions, route finding, digging pits and equipment.
I love backcountry skiing. I have skied big scary peaks, high-consequence canyons and easy touring areas. I used to go up to Molas Pass with lots of gear, hot coffee and headlamps under a full moon to ski down underneath the Engineer Mountain ramparts. I thought nothing of avalanche potential there; I was cockily certain it was safe. But one day it slid, taking out forests and power lines and carving a huge gouge in the landscape; even though the slope’s incline was below 30 degrees, it slid intensely.
Before you venture out of bounds, make sure you know what you’re getting into. Is it safe? Worth the risk? If you must travel in the backcountry, look into the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education (AIARE) guide operations. Go online to CAIC to check on avalanche conditions. If it’s low, then go – otherwise, don’t. Be safe, smart and level-headed.
Paul Pennington Durango