For nearly 10 years I've made my living as a full time mountain guide. During this time spent in the mountains, one thing has become clear: Predicting avalanches is complicated and it is dynamic. Things are rarely black and white, or I should say red and green. There’s a lot of grey area, or yellow if you will, which makes understanding avalanches and avalanche safety difficult to grasp. Nonetheless, I think it’s important that backcountry travelers are informed, which is why I complied the list below. This list is by no means complete or definitive, but I hope it gets people in the right frame of mind before they leave the trailhead or step out of a ski area boundary this season.
Dive into the bulletin. Every backcountry traveler should read the local avalanche bulletin before they head out to recreate. Better yet, follow the bulletin over the season in your local area to get an idea of the trends and what dangers to be aware of. If you plan on traveling somewhere, keep an eye on the bulletin in that area so you are not going somewhere blind. Take the time to understand what the bulletin says and LISTEN to it! Avalanche bulletins are a great source of information for backcountry users, but these bulletins won’t provide you with experience. If you’re serious about winter recreation then take the next step and invest in some education.
Practice. A lot of people ask me what avalanche kit (avalanche transceiver, probe, shovel, airbag, etc.) they should buy. There’s a lot of great technology available on the market, but what matters most is actually knowing how to use it properly. If you have a 4x4 car and don’t know how to engage the four-wheel drive, it won’t help you when you need it! Though it’s important to know how to use your gear, it is equally important that your partners are trained as well. You practice so you can save your ski partner(s), so make sure your partner(s) are ready to save you!
Know the red flags. Knowing the warning signs in avalanche terrain and being able to recognize them is vital to your safety. These are nature’s alarm bells. Be on the lookout for the red flags on the list below and if you witness one more of these signs, take the time to reevaluate and consider changing plans.
1. Precipitation: Heavy snow or rain. Recent snow or rain add weight to the snowpack, making it more prone to avalanches.
2. Signs of fresh Avalanches: If you see signs of fresh avalanches, more are likely to occur!
3. Collapsing or cracking in the snow: These are signs of unstable snow, so pay attention to where you are.
4. Wind: Wind can transport snow 10 times faster than it can fall from the sky! Pay attention to the aspect of the slope you are on relative to the direction of wind, particularly near ridges. Also, be mindful of recent signs of wind activity—scouring and sculpting on the surface, which can indicate wind loading on slopes.
5. Rapid temperature change: The sun can change the properties of the snowpack, quickly making the bonds weak and thus unstable. If you’re shedding layers and adding sunscreen, pay attention to the terrain you are in and the terrain above you. Keep in mind that the steeper the slope, the quicker the snowpack is transformed by the heat of the sun.
Communication is key. Think of backcountry travel like riding in a car. I don’t get in a car without a plan of where I’m going, I will put my seatbelt on and make sure others have them on as well, and if I see a red light (that the driver hasn’t) or a car coming out of a blind spot, I will say something. When traveling in the backcountry, everyone needs to have a voice. You should communicate about the plan for the day, discuss the bulletin, do a safety check together (transceiver and gear check), and always speak up if you see any red flags and if you don’t feel comfortable with the situation. Moreover, don’t be afraid to speak up to other groups. If another group is going to drop in above you on a steep slope, say something!
Understand terrain and travel techniques. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Practically speaking, this is exactly where you will enjoy skiing, or riding. The key is being able to identify avalanche prone slopes and safe zones and alternatives, which takes practice and experience. Also, be aware of what the slope you’re on connects to. Just because you’re on low-angle terrain doesn’t mean you aren’t in danger from above. Spacing out your group and skiing one at a time are key to minimizing your risk.
Unlike many activities, making good decisions in avalanche terrain is not applauded. On the contrary, you may miss out on some good snow. Likewise, bad decision-making often goes unpunished. People may make errors in judgment or simply be unaware of certain risks and get away with poor choices. But, like speeding in a car, we don’t know where the radar trap is going to be and if you make a habit of driving fast or recklessly, sooner or later you’re going to pay. So, when you head into the backcountry make sure you are informed, be observant and be conservative.
Top photo by Reuben Krabbe. Middle photo by Jim Harris.