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