Avalanche Safety: The Do's and Don'ts
Vacant slopes, fresh pow, and untouched winter wilderness: If you're a skier, snowboarder, snowshoer, or climber, chances are your boots may be treading on avalanche-prone territory this winter season.
Avalanches are a sobering reality. More than any other natural hazard in the backcountry, they bury dozens of outdoor recreationists every season. Last winter experienced a high number in avalanche-related deaths, in which 24 people died in the US: 8 were skiers, 7 were snowboarders, and the rest were snowshoers, climbers, and trekkers.
Learning about the mountain's snowpack habits can be be a life-saver for you and other adventure aficionados. Based on a checklist published in mountaineering Bible Freedom of the Hills, along with some anecdotal wisdom from avalanche forecaster Brandon Schwartz at Sierra Avalanche Center, we encourage our readers to follow these essential DO's and DON'Ts, keeping in mind the four main elements that cause avalanches: terrain, snowpack, weather, and people. After all, what's more fun than keeping yourself and others from getting buried alive in several feet of snow?
DO: Check whether or not the terrain can produce an avalanche. Look for signs in the slopes: fracture lines, eroded snow, or shooting cracks. Also, measure the mountain slope's angle -- you can use your ski poles or a compass to figure out the likelihood of an avalanche coming your way. The "magic angle" for an avalanche is 38 degrees, and avalanches frequently get rolling somewhere between the ball park of 25 and 60 degrees. Slope degrees change with every aspect, or direction, and configuration of the mountain, so practice doing this "on the fly."
DON'T: Underestimate the likelihood of an avalanche simply because the slope might be under 25 or over 60 degrees. Also, DON'T just guess at angles -- they change with various aspects of the mountain.
DO: Determine the snowpack -- the density and distinct layers of snow -- and its stability. What happens in a deadly slab avalanche: a layer of the snowpack collapses on a weaker layer of hoar and slides down the mountain's ice crust. One way of doing this is by carving out a block of snow. If it slides with ease, then there's a greater chance a much larger layer could fracture with a distinctive wumph sound and cause a slab avalanche, like this one here (note the shooting cracks):
DON'T: Depend solely on others' observations.
Do: Before going out to bag your next summit, check the weather and avalanche reports. Precipitation, wind, and temperature all affect the snowpack. Example: If there were windy days on the slopes, then wind-swept snow likely accumulated on cornices and ridges -- called wind-loading -- creating a deadly chunk of snow waiting to break off. We recommend visiting National Weather Service and Avalanche.org -- backcountry guides swear by these sites before even lacing their boots.
DON'T: Assume (there's that word again) that since the sun is out and the powder is pristine, that you aren't in danger due to yesterday's weather.
DO: Please, leave the hubris at home, check the attitude at the car, and respect the mountain and her forces of nature. People trigger a whopping 92 percent of deadly avalanches, so be aware of your impact on the mountain for the sake of outdoor recreationists around you. Give yourself a mental inventory: What is my goal? What are the risks I'm facing? and most importantly, Am I prepared for the worst? Make sure you have the knowledge and training in avoiding and surviving an avalanche, and we highly recommend taking a course.
DON'T: Partner with reckless morons -- they're out there. Also, DON'T climb, ski, snowboard, or attempt anything else beyond your physical or technical limits. And finally, DON'T go into avalanche-prone regions without having taken 1) an avalanche rescue course, 2) safety gear like probes, a shovel, avalanche beacon, and 3) a partner who has the same resources.
Photo Credit: iStockphoto/SebastianHamm; iStockPhoto/DarioEgidi
J. Scott Donahue is an editorial intern at Sierra. He was a freshman in Mr. Hancock's English class when he first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Now, he's currently working on a graduate thesis composed of travel essays. Topics include substitute teaching kindergartners in Nepal, drinking rice beer with a Tibetan porter, and running a marathon from Everest Base Camp.