An estimated 150 people per year die in avalanches in North America, a statistic that’s made even more horrifying considering the relatively small numbers of people who venture into avalanche-prone terrain. As you gear up for your outdoor adventures this winter, keep these tips in mind.
Learn To Read Terrain
As you start to venture into the sidecountry, keep in mind that no matter how accessible an area might be from a ski resort, it can still hold all the dangers as the full-on backcountry. Treat unpatrolled areas with respect, and learn to recognize terrain traps and slide paths. Do you know what slope angles are most likely to slide? If you were hit by an avalanche, what’s below you—trees? A cliff? A smooth runout?
The gold standard for education in snow safety is the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), who offer courses at Levels 1, 2, and 3. The first level, “Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain,” is a 3-day, 24-hour course that was specifically designed for recreational backcountry users like skiers, snowboarders, and hikers on snowshoes. Students learn how to prepare for and execute trips, understand basic decision-making in the field, and rescue techniques required to find and dig out a buried person if an avalanche occurs.
Pay Attention To What’s Happening Locally
Checking local avalanche forecasts—which you can find through the American Avalanche Association—is a great way to get a general sense of what’s happening in your region. Pay attention to recent weather, and avoid avalanche terrain within 24 hours of a storm that brings a foot (30 centimeters) or more of fresh snow, which is when slides are most common. Check local trip reports. Ask questions. Stay engaged with the mountains as much as possible.
Wear a Helmet
Every year brings new gear technology and innovation: inflatable backpacks, fancy probes, lightweight shovels. Efficacy rates vary (and they always increase with proper training), but experts agree that there’s one piece of gear they never travel without: the brain bucket. Buy a helmet. Wear it. Every single time.
Understand the Risks
Even the best backcountry travelers know that there’s always some risk. “You can do everything right and still get caught in an avalanche,” says Jeff Lane, a Snow Ranger at the Mount Washington Avalanche Center in New Hampshire. “Educate yourself and make good decisions—but if you’re going to ski or climb or travel in avalanche terrain, you’ll have to accept that you can’t be right 100% of the time.” Be prepared, stay safe, and always make conservative decisions. And remind yourself: that sick line will be there another day.
For more information, check out Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, Second Edition (by Bruce Tremper), Allen & Mike’s Avalanche Book (by Mike Clelland and Allen O’Bannon) and Avalanche Essentials (by Bruce Tremper.)