Shan Sethna teaches avalanche awareness to make backcountry skiing safer


The wind howls and the temperature plummets to hypothermic levels. Despite the frigid conditions, Shan Sethna is digging a pit in the snow.

“This is a Quality 2 shear,” he says, while demonstrating tests that determine the stability of the snowpack.

It is a subzero sunny day at 12,000 feet on a ridge at the popular Colorado backcountry recreation destination Berthoud Pass. Mr. Sethna is taking time from skiing his favorite runs to investigate snow conditions. Gauging the snowpack helps backcountry skiers make decisions to avoid triggering an avalanche, a life-preserving skill that many take years to hone.

Sethna, executive director and founding member of the nonprofit Friends of Berthoud Pass, spends most of his time promoting safe backcountry snow recreation. More than 1,200 people attend FOBP’s 10 yearly classroom avalanche presentations, and enrollment for their on-snow field days fills up quickly.

Sethna caught the skiing bug as a third-grader in Italy (his father was a United Nations diplomat). After returning stateside he night skied in New Jersey and went on weekend trips to New York‘s Catskill Mountains. A circuitous route brought him to Denver, where he now runs a media consulting firm.

While he could be just one of the throng of ski enthusiasts in Colorado, Sethna’s nature is to volunteer and rally others.

Berthoud Pass, an hour’s drive from Denver, attracts flocks of “off piste” skiers and snowboarders who “earn their turns” by propelling themselves up slopes without ski lifts.

For years a ski area operated on Berthoud Pass, but financial woes prompted its closure. The chairlifts were removed in 2003.

It is also one of the most avalanche-prone locations in Colorado, Sethna says.

In the past decade an average of 11 skiers and snowboarders per year died in avalanches across the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Colorado bears the unfortunate distinction of more avalanche fatalities than any other state.

That Berthoud Pass is close to Denver is both a blessing and a curse. “There are not very many places where you can kill yourself in an avalanche an hour from your bed,” Sethna says. He recalls meeting people hiking up the pass without the proper gear. He would say to them, “Hey, people die here. It’s serious.”

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