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Shan Sethna teaches avalanche awareness to make backcountry skiing safer

A growing numbers of skiers in Colorado want to try backcountry skiing, away from the groomed and patrolled trails. Shan Sethna's classes help newcomers learn about avalanche dangers.

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Shan Sethna is the executive director and a founding member of the Friends of Berthoud Pass in Denver. The organization is a grass-roots collective that uses knowledgeable backcountry volunteers to teach avalanche training classes to skiers free of charge.

Emily Palm

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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.

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