The Good News: Outdoor exploration is on the rise. More and more people are getting outside in the winter to explore their local parks, trails, and mountains.
The Bad News: With this increased participation comes an increased occurrence of accidents, especially with beginner adventurists who might not be formally trained in reading the danger signs.
A recent article in Trail Runner Magazine focuses on the potential for accidents with more people on the trails: “In 2002, avalanche educator and researcher Ian McCammon reviewed 715 avalanche accidents, looking for common motives that negatively influenced the judgement of the avalanche victims. In his research he identified six ‘human factors’ he described as ‘heuristic traps’ that lead to these accidents in the face of clear signs of danger:
Familiarity-refers to an individual’s use of past experiences to make decisions within current situations in familiar terrain.
Acceptance-represents the tendency of individuals to engage in activities they feel will be approved by their peers or those whom they hope to impress.
Consistency-is the propensity for someone to stick with prearranged decisions regardless of the risk.
Expert halo-describes how individuals in a group may rely on the decisions of those perceived to have more experience, skill, knowledge, or assertion.
Scarcity-is the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them, especially to a competitor.
Social facilitation-is someone’s tendency to decrease or increase the amount of risk he or she is willing to undertake depending on the presence of other group members.”
Think these risks only apply to backcountry skiers, snowboarders, alpinists, and mountain runners? THINK AGAIN. There is a growing number of avalanche-related deaths for snowshoers both on mountain and on trail. We all need to be aware out there!
Where to Start:
First off, it may sound simple, but make sure you have the right snowshoe for where you’re intending to go. Snowshoe engineers spend a lot of time building crampons for exactly the kind of terrain the shoe is for. Using a trail shoe will not help you summit a mountain. Using the wrong shoe puts you at risk for slipping, post-hole-ing, or using more energy than you need to get up, tiring you out for the hike down.
Next, make sure you know how to use your snowshoe. This includes checking the shoe before even leaving your house to make sure it’s fully operational. It also means having the right gear to go along with your snowshoe. That might be poles, footwear, and of course the right clothing layers and nutrition.
In today’s era of uncertain climate changes, avalanche safety is even more important. Our sister site, Snowshoes.com, has great avalanche safety basic tips:
1) Read the Avalanche Forecast and Weather Forecast
Find your local avalanche forecast at www.avalanche.org and your local weather forecast at www.weather.gov. The local resources available today on the internet are incredible. Staying informed is one of the most important keys to avalanche safety. Make sure to read and understand the avalanche risks and weather forecasts before venturing into the backcountry.
2) Identify Avalanche Terrain
Many snowshoers don’t venture onto avalanche slopes. Since snowshoeing is not a gravity sport, the backcountry slopes that are prone to avalanches rarely see snowshoe tracks. But many snowshoers do travel through avalanche terrain beneath areas where slides can occur. If you see slide paths – which often look like treeless swaths that funnel down from higher elevations – then you need to be aware that avalanches are possible above you and can travel great distances. Here are some important things to consider about your surrounding terrain.
- Slope Angle – Avalanches need gravity to occur and steeper slopes have a greater pull of gravity. Most avalanches occur between 30 and 45 degrees, with the majority around 37-38 degrees. The steepest downhill ski runs are typically around 30-35 degrees. You are probably thinking, “How do I have any idea how steep the slope is?” Well, you can measure it using tools, but the important thing to remember is if it looks steep enough to slide, it probably is. When in doubt, be conservative.
- Slope Aspect – Most times, the avalanche report or forecast will indicate which aspects have unsafe avalanche conditions. The slope aspect is the direction the slope points. Sometimes a slope facing north can be safer than a slope facing south. Sometimes the opposite is true. It is important to carry a compass and determine the slope aspect so you can stay away from the unsafe slopes reported in the local avalanche bulletin.
- There are many other things to consider when identifying avalanche terrain, for more information, please consider taking an avalanche awareness course.
3) Recognize Red Flags
A major part of avalanche safety is staying in tune with the changing snow conditions before and during your trip. By recognizing these red flags, you will increase your safety.
- Recent Avalanches – Have there been any recent avalanches? If so, it is a good bet that more are possible or even probable.
- Signs of Unstable Snow – Do you see any cracking or collapsing in the snow? Do you hear any “whumpfing” sounds? Does the snow sound hollow or like a drum when snowshoeing across it? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then the snow has some unstable characteristics – this should be considered a red flag.
- Heavy Snowfall or Rain in the Past 24 Hours – Heavy snowfall or rain can trigger avalanches. While new snow is beautiful, it can often be unstable. Letting new snow settle after a storm is often a much safer bet. Check the weather and see what has happened recently and what is expected during your trip. If it is snowing very heavily or worse yet, raining, and you are in avalanche terrain, it is a good idea to turn around and find safety.
- Wind-Blown Snow – Snow doesn’t just come out of the sky. It can also be blown great distances and build up into unstable pillows or wind “slabs”. Deep, wind-blown snow on steep slopes, is a major red flag that should raise your awareness.
- Significant Warming and/or Rapidly Increasing Temperatures – Big increases in temperature can cause stable snow to become unstable. If there is a big warm-up in the forecast, stay away from avalanche terrain.
4) Carry the Proper Equipment
If your adventure takes you into avalanche terrain, be sure to carry the proper avalanche equipment and gain the knowledge required on how to use it in the field:
- Check out Backcountry Access (BCA) for a full offering of the gear you’ll need to be prepared on your next adventure
- Must Have’s: Avalanche Transceiver, Shovel, Probe, and Education
5) Get Trained
It’s important that you learn proper techniques for using avalanche safety gear. Please visit www.avalanche.org for online tutorials and links to avalanche courses. We like the standard courses provided by AIARE.
Most importantly, check the avalanche forecast (www.avalanche.org) and conditions before you go and stay alert.
Want to Learn More?
Head to our sister company, Backcountry Access, and their educational pages to learn more about safety in the snow.
Have fun, but SAFE fun, out there friends!
EDITORS NOTE: This blog post was written prior to the Alpental avalanche in Washington state that killed two teenage snowshoers. Our thoughts and condolences are with their families.