Welcome to my annual refresher about Backcountry Avalanche Awareness 2023/2024. I am no subject matter expert, but Stella and I are always eager to explore new terrain in search of an off-the-beaten-path adventure. Thus, when you leave the cozy confines of the groomed trails at the ski resorts/nordic centers, you must understand your environment and the potential consequences of being unprepared. With that being said, never travel alone, and leave instructions with someone about where you are going and the expected return time. Lastly, never walk out the door without knowing the latest avalanche forecast.
Whether you are skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice climbing, or snowmobiling, you need to heed the dangers of recreating in the backcountry. Having a pack with the necessary gear is just as essential as understanding snow conditions, when and where it is safe to travel in avalanche-prone areas, and what to do if one encounters, or is personally trapped in an avalanche. I have provided a high overview of understanding avalanches, preparedness, and safety measures while traveling in the backcountry below.
Avalanches, often referred to as “snow slides,” are rapid, mass movements of snow down a mountainside. To give you an idea, dry slab avalanches typically travel 60-80 miles per hour. They reach these speeds within about 5 seconds after they fracture. Understanding the science behind avalanches is essential to minimize their risks. The key factors to consider include:
- Types of Avalanches:
- Snowslides can be classified into various types, such as dry snow avalanches, wet snow avalanches, and slab avalanches. Understanding the differences between these types is crucial for assessing risk.
- Trigger Factors:
- Avalanches can be triggered by a variety of factors, including snowfall, wind, temperature changes, and human activity. Recognizing the triggers helps in avoiding high-risk situations.
- Avalanche Terrain:
- Certain terrains, such as steep slopes, couloirs, and cornices, are more prone to avalanches. Knowing how to recognize and navigate these terrains is vital. Most avalanches occur on slopes that have an incline of 30-45 degrees, however, they may occur on slopes as flat as 25 degrees and as steep as 60 degrees.
Being prepared for avalanches is a multifaceted endeavor that encompasses several critical aspects:
- Education and Training:
- Anyone venturing into avalanche-prone areas should undergo formal avalanche education and training. Avalanche awareness courses teach participants how to assess conditions, use avalanche safety equipment, and make informed decisions. AIARE is a great resource.
- Avalanche Forecasting:
- Staying informed about avalanche forecasts is paramount. Meteorologists and avalanche professionals work together to predict avalanche risks in specific areas. This information can guide decision-making for individuals and groups.
- Avalanche Safety Gear:
- Carrying essential safety gear, including beacons, shovels, probes, and airbags, can significantly improve the chances of survival if caught in an avalanche. Knowledge of how to use this equipment is equally important.
Avalanche awareness is only valuable if put into practice through safety measures:
- Trip Planning:
- Detailed trip planning is the foundation of avalanche safety. This involves assessing terrain, checking avalanche forecasts, and sharing trip itineraries with responsible parties.
- Group Dynamics:
- Traveling in a group can provide an added layer of safety, as members can watch out for one another. Communication within the group is crucial.
- Recognizing when to turn back or avoid risky terrain is a critical skill. Risk assessment should be an ongoing process during the trip, with the ability to adapt to changing conditions.
- Avalanche Rescue:
- In the unfortunate event of an avalanche burial, knowledge of rescue techniques is indispensable. Time is of the essence in rescues, and knowing how to use beacons, probes, and shovels effectively can make the difference between life and death. Statistics show that 93 percent of avalanche victims can be recovered alive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes, but then the numbers drop catastrophically. After 45 minutes, only 20-30 percent are still alive and after two hours almost no one is alive. In other words, you don’t have much time.
- Weather and Snowpack Assessment:
- Understanding the current weather conditions and the snowpack’s stability is vital. Snow tests and observations can help determine if an area is safe to enter.
- Terrain Management:
- Safe route selection is crucial. Avoiding avalanche-prone areas, staying on ridgelines, and skiing conservatively in the backcountry can minimize risks.
At the end of the day, the key to avalanche survival lies in knowledge, preparation, and wise decision-making, making it possible to enjoy the beauty and excitement of the mountains while minimizing the threat of avalanches. Have fun, be safe, and be prepared!
Following the Backcountry Avalanche Awareness Winter Essentials is a video of the most recent version of KBYG – Know Before You Go (updated in 2022), which provides a great overview of avalanche preparedness, plus a link to AIARE – the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. AIARE provides hands-on training that will allow you to make smart decisions in avalanche terrain. One comprehensive book that I happened upon was “Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper. This book is not a substitute for the AIARE training or at minimum a basic course in Backcountry Avalanche Awareness; however, it provides a thorough overview of traveling in avalanche terrain and may provide some helpful information and tools.
BACKCOUNTRY Avalanche Awarness WINTER ESSENTIALS
- Avalanche Preparedness
- Floatation/Avalanche Airbag
- Avalanche Transceiver
- Snow Testing Gear
- Cell Phone, Map, Compass and GPS
- Personal Locater Beacon
- Extra layers, Hat & Gloves
- Headlamp and/or Flashlight
- Extra Batteries
- First-Aid Supplies
- Matches, Lighter
- Waterproof Storage Container
- Repair Kit & Tools
- Multitool and/or Knife
- Hydration & Nutrition
- High Carbohydrate/Caloric Foods
- Extra Food
- Emergency Shelter
- Bivy and Reflective Blanket
Backcountry Avalanche Awareness Resources
AVALANCHE.ORG – Avalanche.org
Colorado Avalanche Information Center – CAIC
Utah Avalanche Center – Utah Avalanche Center
Bridger Teton Avalanche Center – Bridger Teton Avalanche Center
Sawtooth Avalanche Center – Sawtooth Avalanche Center
Sierra Avalanche Center – Sierra Avalanche Center
Northwest Avalanche Center – Northwest Avalanche Center
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper