The Spirit of Alpinism

(360) 671-1505 [email protected]

Avalanche Safety: How to Avoid Getting Buried

From the December 2005 edition of AAI's E-newsletter

Snow avalanches occur tens of thousands of times each year throughout the mountains of the world. They happen as a result of snow on an incline adjusting to the pull of gravity. There are many different types of avalanches, but the slab avalanche causes the most concern for backcountry travelers. In slab avalanches, a mass of cohesive snow releases as a unit. Slab avalanches can be triggered naturally or artificially.

How concerned about avalanches should we be? Consider that well over ninety percent of avalanche victims are caught by a slide that was triggered by a member of their own party. If we know how to recognize avalanche danger and change our behavior to avoid problems, we can substantially reduce the likelihood of triggering one.

Avalanches are formed by a combination of snowpack,terrain, and weather that together are known as the Avalanche Triangle. When you are in the backcountry in winter, late fall, or early spring, you place yourself in the midst of the triangle. To travel safely in the backcountry, you must make accurate assessments of these three factors. Most importantly, you must develop an ability to translate these assessments into appropriate decisions. Avalanche education focuses on helping you gain the skills you need to make objective observations and to effectively work through a sound decision making process.

Heading home after a day of touring in Mt. Baker's backcountry. Scott Schumann

How to avoid being caught in an avalanche:

1. Get educated.Take an avalanche course, read, ask the experts, and practice with your rescue equipment. Snow pack evaluation is an ongoing process, and snow stability can vary significantly even within a limited area. Never trust a single source of information.

2. Check your local weather reports and avalanche prediction centers.Call your local ski area and talk with local experts and others who have recently traveled in the areas you are planning to visit. To start with, be sure it is a reasonable decision to head out the door. And once you are on your route, continually evaluate conditions using the avalanche triangle and snow pack stability tests as your guide.

3. Carry the proper equipment and know how to use it.Practice with your gear several times each year. Host a transceiver recovery party in your neighborhood! It's also good to practice a recovery once a year without your transceiver.

4. Be conservative.Do not get caught in the trap of letting the fact that you are carrying extra gear force you into more dangerous decisions. You do not ever want to have to use your rescue gear.

5. Travel with trusted, avalanche-educated partners and discuss trip goals.Plan your route and alternate routes, and discuss challenges and hazards.

The easiest way to avoid an avalanche is to choose a route of travel that is not in a potential avalanche path. The challenge is that climbers explore and skiers compose their lines on the same slope angles where avalanches most often occur (30-45 degrees). Consider travel on steeper or gentler lines.

If an avalanche buries a member of your party, their only real chance of survival is if YOU rescue them--don't go for help unless you're sure they're dead, because they will be by the time you return with a search party.

If you like to head for the backcountry in fall, winter or early spring, avalanche education and the use of proper rescue equipment is essential. Check out AAI's Avalanche Level 1 and Level 2 programs, which take place on Mt. Baker in Washington's North Cascades, and our Valhalla Mountain Avalanche Course (Level 2) held in the Selkirks of British Columbia, Canada. Also be sure to explore the many excellent books and internet resources on the subject. Our staff is always happy to answer your questions and direct you to educational materials.

Bonus tip: The Principle of the Three Red Flags.

This principle is all about making good decisions and knowing when to back off. It states that an outcome can be traced back to a series of related events. If you can recognize the meaning or significance of the events, you have a chance to control the outcome.

A red flag is a warning such as an event, an observation, or an intuition that we often dismiss as temporary or unimportant when in fact it is a sign that may be leading to a serious problem. To apply the Principle of the Three Red Flags when you are in the mountains, always be alert and observant and recognize when events (or red flags) are beginning to stack up against you. Take special note of details that your intellect or your intuition recognizes as small setbacks or problems. Consider that these events may be the ingredients for bigger, more serious danger ahead. Likewise, recognize when things are going well and notice how this feels. By acknowledging your observations and intuition, you'll become better and better at making good decisions.

Reference for this month's Expert Tips -

Program Finder