Avalanche Awareness 101

avalanche tipsAn 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?

Get Edu­cat­ed
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.)