One With the Yeti: Exploring Colorado’s Winter Ecology

Hello from the inaugural Snow Ecology class! My name is Emily Kressley and I will be blogging about the course over the next few years. While we’re a bit into the class by now, we wanted to backtrack a bit and cover what we’ve been doing so far.

Co-taught by Professor Emilie Gray and Director of Outdoor Education Ryan Hammes, the course aims to give an introduction to how organisms survive the winters in the different mountain environments of Colorado. The course also includes a snow science and snow safety portion so that we can travel through these environments on snowshoes without putting ourselves at risk to avalanche danger. During the first week of class, we set up our field journals. Over the course of the entire block, we are compiling 30 species identifications. These IDs come from clues like tracks, sounds, marks on vegetation, or seeing the physical organism. In the case of identifying coniferous trees, we can use a flow chart and ID the species by looking at the bark, the number of needles in each cluster, and the structure of their needles, cones, and branches. We also learned how to set up our packs for various field trips.

Winter’s can be pretty unforgiving and long days in the field learning about different animal, plant, insect, and other organismal adaptations have led us to understand how to properly dress and what equipment we need. Some of this equipment includes more mundane tools like sunscreen and sunglasses due to the high altitude sun and reflection on the snow, but other more exciting developments were the addition of beacon, probes, and shovels to our tool kit. We also have been exposed to many online tools and apps such as Caltopo, an interactive map system, the Merlin Bird ID app, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).

We wear beacons, or avalanche transceivers, that emit pulsed radio signals. In the event that a member or members of our group were to be buried in an avalanche, the other members of the group would switch their beacons to search mode and follow the flux lines indicated by arrows on the beacon. The lower the number gets on the beacon, the closer you are to the buried member. We practiced in the beacon field at the ORC prior to bringing the equipment out to the mountains. Once the number gets fairly low, you engage in a more fine-tuned search, keeping the orientation of the beacon facing forward and constant, and moving it in a T pattern. This can be a bit tricky, but once the lowest number is located, the point is marked and phase 2 of the search begins. The party begins probing, starting at the point where the lowest number was marked and working out in a concentric circle. It is important to keep the probe, a very long metal rod with a sharp end to push through snow, perpendicular to the slope when you push it down with 2 hands. The snowpack may be several feet deep, but a probe strike on a body should feel distinct from pushing through snow around it. The last portion is to step 1.5 times back the distance down the person is (measured on the probe) and begin digging. Efficiency and speed are key here as the leading causes of death from avalanches are asphyxiation or blunt trauma, yet working smart and safely is better than panicked haste. The rescuers should locate the airway first and start CPR if necessary.

We will be conducting a large portion of our snow science studies while on our week long field trip in Gothic. Come back soon to learn more about our specific days in the field and what we saw!

Published by Emily

My name is Emily and I am a senior environmental policy major. Originally from Connecticut, I've come to feel at home in the mountains of Colorado. On campus, I am involved in various publications, rugby, and Greek life. I love reading, writing, and cooking, especially with family and friends. I am an avid skier and enjoy hiking, camping, and just getting outside.

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