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Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

Tuckerman Ravine
Tuckerman Ravine

If you do a lot of hiking, climbing, snowshoeing or skiing in winter in the mountains and you haven’t had any avalanche training, I suggest you get some. In addition, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper. This is an excellent book, full of diagrams and illustrations that is a great introduction to why avalanches occur, how to differentiate between safe terrain and dangerous terrain, and how to travel safely in avalanche country. It is published by The Mountaineers, which publish many mountaineering and backcountry classics.

Avalanche Causes

The most important thing you need to know about avalanche accidents is that 93% of them are caused by victims or someone in their party. The good news is that with proper training and experience, many avalanche accidents can be prevented.

One of the keys to avoiding avalanches is understanding terrain and the conditions in which avalanches are most likely to occur. For example, most avalanches occur on slopes that have an incline of between 35-45 degrees which you’d typically find on black diamond or double black diamond ski runs. One way to greatly increase your safety level is to climb slopes with gentler grades and to bring an inclinometer with you to make sure that you avoid slopes with grades in this danger zone.

Avalanche Danger Signs

Other more obvious signs of avalanche danger are related to the stability or the snow pack and can be easily observed without much formal training. If you encounter these conditions, it’s worth turning around and finding a safer area or alternate path to your destination:

  1. Evidence of recent avalanche activity on adjacent slopes with similar terrain is a strong indicator that you are still in an avalanche zone.
  2. Collapsing snow which makes a loud WHOOMPH when you step on it. In these cases a catastrophically weak layer of snow lies beneath a heavier more stable layer and can bring avalanches down on you from above.
  3. Cracks which propagate out from your footsteps. Again, this is indicative of a weak lower layer and a buildup of kinectic energy in the upper layer which is ready to tear loose.

Avalanche Rescue

Despite significant improvements in avalanche beacon technology, the chances of a successful rescue after an avalanche accident are depressingly slim, making it imperative that you learn the observation skills and route-finding techniques that can make travel in avalanche territory significantly safer. Few people understand that the debris field at the bottom of an avalanche zone is as hard as concrete making it difficult to dig someone out before they suffocate, in the event that they can even be found in time. Sobering stuff.

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