Reducing Avalance Risk

8 Steps to Reducing Avalanche Risk by Knox Williams

I have been in the avalanche business for 25 years, and I have read far too many avalanche articles that seem to have one purpose: to scare the reader.


This article is different. I am going to give you an eight-step plan for learning about avalanches so that you will understand and respect them, not fear them. Learning respect should be your goal, because you then have the knowledge and confidence to travel where you like with a good idea of what the real risks are.


"All the avalanche experts are dead," I was told 25 years ago when I first began my avalanche education (and didn't know an avalanche from a snowball). That's bunk! I didn't believe that then, and I certainly don't now. You don't have to die in an avalanche, or be scared badly enough to wish you were dead, to have avalanche savvy. However, you will have to work at learning about snow and avalanches before you gain the confidence to judge the risk and make a "go or no go" decision.


Avalanche education, like life, is "hard by the yard, but a cinch by the inch." What I mean by this is don't try to swallow the whole avalanche pill of knowledge at once: it will choke you. Rather, take your education in small doses; it will eventually develop into a clear picture.


You will discover two things on your quest for knowledge. First, attaining an avalanche education is a life-long endeavor. No matter how much you learn, every winter will bring new revelations and challenges. Second, you will be studying in the most wonderful classroom on this planet -- the lofty domain of mountains. With this in mind, here are my "eight steps to reducing your avalanche risk."


Some involve time and work on your part, and others are offered as simple tips, but taken altogether, they are guaranteed to improve your odds in risky terrain.


1. Get smart! The smart first step is to learn from the avalanche experts. This will take a commitment of time and effort on your part. Let's divide the task into three parts. First, do some reading. There are several good and entertaining books available. Four of the best are The ABC of Avalanche Safety by Ed LaChapelle; Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler; Avalanche Safety for Skiers and Climbers by Tony Daffern; and The Avalanche Book by Betsy Armstrong and Knox Williams. These are carried by all good outdoor recreation stores and large bookstores. Second, check out the videos on avalanche safety. There are four of them: Avalanche Awareness: A Question of Balance; Winning the Avalanche Game; Avalanche Rescue: Not a Second to Waste; and Avalanche Rescue Beacons: A Race Against Time. These are available for sale or rent at most outdoor recreation stores. Third, take an avalanche course. There are many given each winter in the Denver area and throughout Colorado, and The Colorado Avalanche Information Center also does a series of courses for The Colorado Mountain Club.


2. Call the hotlines. There are seven hotlines in Colorado for you to call to get the latest information on mountain weather, snow and avalanche conditions. We update these daily, seven days a week, from November through April. And if you have a computer, you can get the same information by tapping into the TravelBank Systems bulletin board in Denver. Use the information for planning, but don't rely on it to be accurate in detail, for the mountains always offer varied conditions. (The Avalanche Report can also be reached by gopher from the CMC Weather Page. - Webspiner)



Denver: 303-275-5360

Fort Collins: 970-482-0457

Colorado Springs: 719-520-0020

Summit County: 970-668-0600

Vail: 970-827-5687

Aspen: 970-920-1664

Durango: 970-247-8187


3. Identify avalanche terrain. Avalanches run repeatedly year after year in the same areas -- slopes called avalanche paths. Avalanches most often start on slopes of 30-45 degrees but sometimes start on slopes as shallow as 25 degrees and as steep as 50 degrees. Knowing the slope angle is "rule number one" in recognizing avalanche terrain, or once slope angles reach 30 degrees, you are in potential avalanche terrain regardless of all other factors. Although many avalanches start on large open slopes near or above timberline, they can also start on smaller, low-elevation slopes such as gullies, road cuts, and small openings in the trees. Avalanches seldom start in dense trees, but once started they can flow through moderately dense forest. Finally, avalanches are more likely on slopes that face away from the prevailing wind. These "leeward" slopes collect snow that blows over the ridge. This snow builds into wind slabs and is more dangerous than the shallow, harder snow on the windward side of the ridge.


4. Steal nature's signs. Sometimes the snow shows clear and present danger signs of avalanche. The best clue is fresh avalanches, which tells you that some slopes have already stressed out and that others may be near the breaking point. Also watch for snow that collapses beneath you or sends cracks shooting ahead. These are signs that the snow cannot hold you up. Some weather signs that the hazard could be worsening fast are heavy snowfall -- more than one inch per hour -- or strong winds creating blowing snow and snow plumes off the ridges. Keep observing and evaluating all day long. Keep asking yourself these four questions: Is the terrain capable of producing an avalanche? Could the snow slide? Is the weather contributing to instability? Is there a safer route?


5. Test the snow. Look for test slopes where you can dig snowpits and perform stress tests. A test slope is a small, steep slope -- preferably 30 degrees or steeper -- where you will not be in danger of causing an avalanche, but is near enough to a larger slope that you are concerned about. You can learn all about snowpits from some of the books listed above or from an avalanche course, but your procedure should be something like this: With your shovel, dig a hole several feet wide and four to five feet deep (or to the ground.) Smooth the pit wall and then look at and feel the snow for changes in layering, texture, and strength. Next, perform several "shovel shear" tests, followed by a "rutschblock" test. These tests will answer many of your questions about the local snow strength. (It's always good practice to fill in your snowpits afterward to keep someone else from skiing into them.) There are other tests you can do on skis to test for unstable slabs. In a safe location on a small slope or on the very edge of a large slope, jump on your skis or do a quick ski cut on a steep traverse to see if you can make the snow fracture. Finally, if you are on a ridge above a steep slope, try kicking off blocks from a small cornice. Do so by very carefully stomping with one ski to cause a refrigerator-size block to fall onto the slope below. This test simulates the weight of one or more skiers on the slope without putting anyone at risk.


6. Travel smart. There are several rules of backcountry travel that will help to minimize your avalanche risk. Here's a quick list: One at a time. If your group comes to a slope that you are nervous about, only one person at a time should go onto the slope. Whether crossing or going up or down, do so one at a time while all others act as spotters from a safe location. This way, should an avalanche occur, there will be only one victim and lots of rescuers. Avoid the center. The greatest danger on any steep slope comes when you are in the middle of it. Should an avalanche break, you have no escape route. So avoid the center of open slopes. Cross it at the very top or bottom. Go up it or down along the edges. These positions give you a much better chance to escape. Stay on shallow slopes. You can always travel avalanche-free on slopes up to 25 degrees, and more than 95% of the time you are safe on slopes up to 30 degrees. To measure angles exactly, you should buy an inexpensive slope meter (about $18 in mountain recreation shops.) One caution, however; be extra cautious wherever steeper slopes lie above shallow ones. Though avalanches won't start on shallow slopes, it is possible that you could trigger an avalanche far above you, placing you in harm's way. Should you travel alone? While nothing may be so companionable as one's self, there is no greater way to increase your avalanche risk than to travel alone. You have no one to save you from partial or shallow burials.


7. Take your pulse. In other words, check your attitude. It can get you in trouble. Are you so goal-oriented -- to climb this peak or ski that bowl -- that you are willing to take unwarranted risk? Are you so close to reaching your goal that you overlook clear and present danger signs? Are you letting group dynamics or peer pressure cloud good judgment? Are you letting haste or fatigue get you in trouble? To prevent accidents from happening, you must control the human factor in your decision-making.


8. Be ready for rescue. Thousands of skiers, climbers, and snowmobilers have triggered avalanches and lived to tell about it. After all, statistics show that for every 15 people caught, one will die while 14 will live. Some people were just lucky: the avalanche spit them out at the last moment. Others lived because they did things that helped. There are three parts to the rescue equation that will reduce your risk: what equipment to carry, what to do if you are caught, and what to do if a friend is caught.


Rescue gear. A small shovel and an avalanche rescue beacon are two items that everyone who goes into steep terrain should not be without. The beacon makes for a quick find of a buried victim, and the shovel is absolutely necessary for digging in avalanche debris. Most avalanche victims cannot survive a burial of 30 minutes or longer, and beacons and shovels are the best way for a quick recovery. Modern avalanche beacons are expensive, more than $200 each, and it takes at least two to make the system work, but it is the best investment you can make for your personal avalanche safety. After you buy a beacon, you’ll need to practice with it to become a good rescuer. This kind of practice is a lot of fun. We in the Avalanche Center can help you decide which beacon to buy and can get you started on some good practice exercises. If you are caught, what can you do to improve your odds of survival? It's always best to avoid getting caught in the first place, for the speeds and forces that avalanche victims are subject to can cause severe harm even if the group is prepared for rescue. Still though, there are things you can do. Many victims survived because they were able to escape to the side. Others were able to grab a tree. Many others, once swept downhill, were able to swim with the moving snow, similar to body-surfing in the ocean. This may let you end up on top. If you can't make it to the surface, try to make (before the avalanche stops) an airspace in front of your face, which will give you breathing space. If all goes well, your companions will find you quickly with their beacons. If a friend is caught, what can you do to hasten a speedy recovery? Watch the victim on his descent. Go immediately to the last-seen area and search downhill from there. Turn your beacon to receive and pick up the signal. Without beacons, search for surface clues and probe the debris. Do not abandon the search too soon or send searchers out for additional help: You are the buried victim's best chance for survival. So there they are, my eight steps for avalanche safety. To summarize, let's see how you can reduce your avalanche risk on atypical day tour. First, be prepared before you leave home. Armed with avalanche knowledge

(#1) and the day's forecast

(#2), and equipped for rescue and survival 

(#3). Right away, start looking for clues of unstable snow

(#4), and whenever necessary, test the snow

(#5). If there are obvious danger signs, don't go, or alter your route. Without any clear and present danger, still proceed with caution

(#6). If you follow these steps, you will never be caught off-guard.

(#7). Once in the backcountry, your tour will probably take you in or near avalanche terrain

(#8), you have taken the first steps to avoid disaster. You probably started the day with a plan or goal; don't be afraid to change it if necessary


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