Shadowed by avalanche in the majestic Colorado backcountry

Story highlights

  • Avalanche danger is part of backcountry skiing
  • Several backcountry skiers have died in avalanches recently
  • Backcountry skiing is a unique experience, but not for everyone
A liquid silence covers the snow-covered Colorado backcountry in February.
It swallows my words, more than once causing me to wonder whether I actually said them or just imagined them in the beauty of the surrounding moonscape.
The sound of breathing and the rhythmic "ka-chunk, ka-chunk" of backcountry skis is muted and echoless, as if heard at close range but under water.
So it is all the more disconcerting when "WHUMPH!" -- an otherworldly thunder breaks the silence, echoing strangely, as if threatening a storm on some other planet.
"What's that?" I ask -- more as fight-or-flight response, than an actual question, my heartbeat jumping 30 beats in a matter of seconds.
"That's a 'whumph,' " says our backcountry guide.
That's actually what it's called: a "whumph." Say it to any experienced winter backcountry explorer, and they will immediately know what you mean. It is the sound of a bank of snow reaching an apex of accumulation and all at once -- "settling." Add the right angle of incline and snow conditions, and you get an avalanche.
"Still scares the s*** out of me, every time I hear it," says guide Will Elliott, who has spent as much time as anyone exploring this wilderness and knows its dangers intimately. He was born and raised in the region and has been a professional guide for seven years.
"Try not to fall here," says Elliott. In these conditions, he says, it could trigger an avalanche.