Avalanches, Part 3: Reducing Risk
There are many steps you can take to improve your safety in potential avalanche terrain. This article discusses various actions and basic gear requirements.
Before you leave home, always be aware of the avalanche report. If high avalanche danger is forecast for the mountains that day, plan your route in safe terrain (see route selection below) or stay home altogether.
Once you’re in the field, use your powers of observation throughout your trip to stay alert to avalanche danger. The following are evidence of unstable snow and possible avalanches:
- You see an avalanche happen or see evidence of previous slides.
- Cracks form in the snow around your feet or skis.
- The ground feels hollow underfoot.
- You hear a "whumping" sound as you walk, which indicates that the snow is settling and a slab might release.
- You observe baseball–size snowballs rolling down a sunny slope—these indicate surface warming and a possible wet–snow slide.
- You see surface patterns on the snow made by the force of strong winds. This could indicate that snow has been transported and deposited in dangerous drifts that could release.
If you see any of these natural indicators during your trip, tell your companions. Whether you are the group leader or a first–time follower, don’t hesitate to communicate anything that you think is important to the group’s safety. Be willing to change your route or turn around and go home.
So where is a backcountry traveler to go? First, avoid areas that present any of the warning signs listed above. Instead, seek out:
- Ridges and hilltops.
- Open valleys and gentle slopes without steep sections or chutes above them.
- Windward slopes that do not have cornices hanging above them or snow deposited there.
- Forested areas as long as they are thick enough and as long as slopes above don’t avalanche onto them.
Caution: Slopes with downed trees all laying in one direction or with limbs growing only on the "down slope" side can indicate an avalanche chute. Groves or sparsely wooded areas can slide, too.
If you absolutely have to cross a suspect slope:
- Make sure that you go one at a time.
- Remove ski leashes and pole wrist loops and unbuckle your pack in case you need to remove them in a hurry (if it’s a large heavy backpack; if a day pack, keep it on to help protect your back).
- Zip up all clothing and put on your hat and gloves, just in case you’re caught by the snow.
Other group members should always be watching the person in the "danger zone" and be ready to come to his or her rescue if an avalanche occurs.
The Human Element
A large part of staying safe in the backcountry depends on your group. (And being part of a group is a far wiser way to travel than going solo. It’s a no–brainer for avalanche rescue!) Your companions’ experience and fitness levels can affect the outcome of your trip, as can group size and dynamics.
According to data gathered by the Swiss Avalanche Research Center for accidents between 1981 and 1991, there is a 93% chance of survival if you are rescued from an avalanche within the first 15 minutes of being buried. Your chances of survival drop rapidly to approximately 30% if it takes up to 45 minutes to become rescued.
In backcountry areas, it is very unlikely that search and rescue resources can respond in less than 45 minutes. This means that your best chance of surviving an avalanche comes down to the group of companions that are with you.
Before you head out, "take the pulse" of the group in terms of attitude, skill and preparation for what you’re setting out to do. Is everyone willing and able to take on the same amount of risk? Are they all prepared to deal effectively with an avalanche accident? Is there anyone whose need for a summit or a perfect ski run may get the rest of the group in trouble? Who will take charge of the situation should an avalanche occur? These are all things to iron out before you leave the trailhead.
The other important consideration to take care of at camp or the trailhead is the avalanche transceiver (or "beacon"). Make sure everyone is wearing a working transceiver, knows how to use it and has it turned on to "send." Ensure that all units are compatible.
Avalanche Safety Gear
Avalanche gear will not prevent you from becoming involved in an avalanche. Common sense, coupled with backcountry safety education, is your best defense.
However, avalanche gear provides the highest chance for survival should an accident occur. Be aware that this gear is only as good as your knowledge and skill in using it.
See the REI Expert Advice article, Avalanche Safety Gear, for a discussion of the key items you need.
Next up: Avalanches, Part 4: Rescue Checklist.