The Basics in Becoming Avalanche Savvy: Part II
Mastering Snow Safety One Step at a Timeby Alex Sepulveda
Unlike weather, we can control where we choose to set foot in the backcountry. Avalanche deaths are on the rise, especially among snowmobilers, and never has the utter lack of education in snow safety been more apparent to snow professionals than now.
People take such risk in their backcountry recreation by and large because they’re genuinely unaware of the danger. Were they aware, they wouldn’t do it. It’s instinctual to avoid life threatening situations – we wouldn’t bungee jump off a bridge if we saw the cords were tattered and weak, for example.
But what you can’t see can kill you, like weak layers in the snowpack buried under 2, 5, 10 feet of snow just waiting for someone to drop in and send a thick slab of snow rocketing down the mountain with the victim in it. Were people aware, they simply wouldn’t take the risk.
Weak layers, such as this one, cannot support the snow above them.
Perhaps it’s because we learn to ski and ride within the safe and controlled confines of a ski area, becoming exceedingly proficient at our sports. We’re used to blazing down powder fields at high speed without a second thought to the stability of the snowpack. We gaze at backcountry peaks in the distance, and envision doing there exactly what we love to do inbounds, rip powder.
The resort really becomes an artificial representation of mountainous terrain because the single largest hazard that exists in the mountains, an avalanche, has been eliminated through control work. Maybe if there were no such thing as lift service and ski patrol, and we were forced to grow up skiing the way our Nordic ancestors did, we’d have a better understanding of the awesome and destructive power of snow. Alas, all too often we learn the hard way.
It can be scary out there, yes, but you can master the skills it takes to participate in backcountry activity safely. Some of us learn complex concepts more quickly than others, but most of us tend to learn them in piecemeal fashion and with much repetition and practice. Snow science should be no different. Take it slow, and take it seriously.
Avalanche Safety Tips
1) Take a basic class. Might be an informal lecture or class at a local ski area introducing terminology and basic concepts. This does NOT prepare you to travel safely in the backcountry.
2) Read an introductory book. An excellent choice is Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. Snow professionals always do a good job at stressing the importance of acquiring the right skills to ski relatively safely in the backcountry, but they’re not always as good at explaining the complexities of snow science in any palatable form that gives you hope of mastering these concepts. Tremper is really bridging this gap with his book.
3) Take an avalanche skills course. Could be a course that meets Level 1 Curriculum Guidelines from the American Avalanche Association, something more comprehensive than a basic course that ideally involves 2-3 days in the field. Here’s an excellent one geared toward women, Berthoud Babes Avalanche I Backcountry Skills Workshop.
Performing a stability test in a snow pit.
4) Acquire the gear. If you haven’t already, invest in an avalanche beacon, probes, and a shovel. All three are indispensable pieces of gear for backcountry recreation that you will learn to use in an avalanche skills course.
5) Practice. Go touring with highly skilled and patient partners who you trust and who are willing to share in their wisdom. Start at a comfortable level, i.e., perhaps jumping into steep couloirs Andrew McLean style isn’t exactly the way to start your backcountry career.
6) Practice, practice, practice. Dig pits like crazy, perform loads of stability tests, call the forecast center everyday, analyze the snow to death, become a snow nerd.
7) Read more. Maybe something a little more technical like McClung and Schaerer’s The Avalanche Handbook.
How some avalanches form
The vast majority of avalanches are preceded by a drastic change in weather like temperature, wind, and snowfall. If nature abhors a vacuum, snow abhors abrupt change. Unfortunately, when it hasn’t snowed for a while, and finally a storm dumps a load of new snow all at once, this abrupt change is precisely what draws ravenous backcountry skiers, riders, and snowmobilers into unstable terrain.
This very scenario has dominated our season in Utah this year, and people have been getting buried in the backcountry left and right. They’ve been fortunate to be in the company of skilled rescuers, and have generally been experienced backcountry enthusiasts themselves. Still, each of them traveled right into danger.
The point is that most of us grossly overestimate our knowledge of snow safety because there is way more to snow, terrain, and weather than we realize (or want to admit). It’s incredibly complex with endless permutations of factors coming into play. We learn to dig a pit and to perform a couple of stability tests – often not even that – and then drop right in to the backcountry naively trusting our judgment. It’s green circle mentality where black diamond aptitude is required, and it’s the cause of so many deaths.