What to know before you go: staying avalanche safe in the backcountry


Landon, Backcountry Ambassador

Snowshoeing is a growing sport with more and more taking part in the fun each year. However, with the increase in people enjoying the backcountry on skis, splitboards, snowboards or snowshoes there comes a greater risk of backcountry accidents, especially when it comes to avalanches. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the dangers of the backcountry, “90% of avalanche victims die in slides triggered by themselves or a member of their group.” (avalanche.org). Knowing the warning signs and what to look for can keep you and your friends safe. While avalanche training requires much more than a couple of online articles here are five things to remember and get you started on greater knowledge and safety.

Knowledge is Power

There are hundreds of reputable and good resources available when it comes to avalanche training and information. Here in Utah, and surely in many other places, there are websites with a constant update of information and advisories (utahavalanchecenter.org). Checking this, or similar resources before you go is always a good idea. You can check on any potential advisories in the area you plan on snowshoeing and get nearly real time detailed information about the conditions, snow, types of potential avalanches and elevation ranges with the highest risk.

Besides checking for advisories before you go the best option is to take a backcountry safety or avalanche safety course. There are a number of very good resources available, such as the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, and the American Avalanche Association.

Understand the Risks

When heading into the backcountry you take on inherent risks. One should not go out blind to the fact that there are risks associated with winter sports in the backcountry. We are talking about avalanches in general, but it is also good to realize risks in unpredictable weather, extreme weather, the physical demand of winter backcountry travel and knowing proper navigation techniques can all present challenges and risks in some way. When it comes to avalanches however, there are some sobering facts and statistics that help put things in perspective:

  • After 35 minutes, a buried victim has only a 27% chance of survival (avalanche.org)
  • Last Year (2014-2015) there were a total of 11 avalanche related fatalities in the United States, which is far fewer than the years previous; 35 fatalities in 2013-2014, 24 fatalities in 2012-2013, and 34 fatalities in 2011-2012 (avalanche.org)
  • 90% of avalanche victims die in slides triggered by themselves or a member of their group.” (avalanche.org).

Know the Signs

There are a few important signs to look for and know about to help keep you out of avalanche danger (it is highly recommended that a formal class be taken before traveling into the backcountry).

  • Recent Avalanches: If you notice a recent slide area the chances of another slide occurring in the same general area are exponentially higher.
  • Wind Blown Snow: wind can be a huge contributor to slides. Wind creates snow slabs on the leeward slopes, which can be very dangerous and occur even when it isn’t and hasn’t been snowing.
  • Heavy Snowfall or Rain in the Past 24 Hours: high levels of snow and/or rain in a short period of time can make the snowpack unstable. It is common for slides to be triggered the first clear day after a storm.
  • Rapid Warming: when cold temps switch quickly to warmer temps melting occurs and gravity begins to pull the snowpack downward making the pack unstable.
  • Unstable Snow: Snow that creaks or creaks, “whumpfing” sounds, or hollow sound when walking n hard snow.

Carry the Right Gear

While snowshoers may not think that they put themselves in danger like backcountry skiers, snowboarders and alpinists, some snowshoe trails sit below avalanche shoots from peaks above. In higher risk areas a beacon (or transceiver), airbagprobes and shovels are always a good idea to bring along. Having a reliable beacon and knowing how to use it can literally mean life or death for your friends.

A beacon can transmit a signal (if buried) or you can turn it to receive signals (when searching for someone buried). Beacons use electromagnetic signals to transmit location and make searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack much more efficient and easy, which means lives saved.

Probes can often be overlooked, but are an essential part of avalanche preparedness and rescue gear. A probe allows the searcher to find the exact location of the slide victim extremely quickly. Once the buried person’s location has been pin-pointed by a beacon or a probe, if properly used, they can help locate the exact location and depth in the debris, drastically cutting down on digging time and resulting in a much higher chance of a saved live.

A shovel is the most obvious of these three tools, but without it uncovering a buried slide victim is nearly impossible. An avalanche displaces extreme amounts of snow and other debris often making digging a difficult task even with a shovel.

Never Stop Learning

Just as a doctor requires a certain amount of continuing education hours each year to stay current on learning, so must those participating in backcountry activities stay current on avalanche training. Resources, tools and gear are constantly being refined and updated. Taking an avalanche class every year or every other year allows you to get refresher courses on training, more practice,   deeper understandings, and insights into new innovations into avalanche rescue and prevention.

So stay smart out there. Getting outdoors is a privilege that comes with a certain level of responsibility. In which case that responsibility is taking the proper steps to stay safe when traveling in the backcountry.

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Staying Avalanche Savvy Blog Post