3 Tips Keep You Alive in Avalanche Terrain – Discuss

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 13, 2017      
During extreme avalanche danger the lower portion of the approach trail is crossed by quite a few avalanches.

During extreme avalanche danger the lower portion of this Colorado hut approach trail is crossed by quite a few avalanches. They might take you into dense trees or a terrain trap.

We have a lot of avalanche safety tip “listicles” and essays here at WildSnow. To get everyone thinking as well as applying basic consideration in the backcountry, I pulled the following short list out of those posts. We’ve had a couple of exceptional winters here in Colorado in terms of avalanche accidents. Experts debate the reasons for that, instinct tells me it’s a result of many factors: snowpack, luck, etc., but I’m of the opinion that educated skiers adhering to protocols have enhanced the odds in their favor. As in the triad of suggestions below. Discuss? What’s your most common success, or failure?

1. Any one vote against a decision or route changes the group plan — groups always stay together.

2. If you descend first, your odds are worse. Take turns with the firsts, carefully arrange group for observation and quick response. (“I was eating my sandwich and eventually noticed “Bill” wasn’t around…”)

3. Obsess on consequences. A steep run that strainers thorough trees is near certain life changing injury or worse. A lower angled, shorter run without terrain obstacles can be a world of different. If you sport a balloon backpack, this rule is especially important as the airbag, other than perhaps violently bouncing you off a few tree trunks before it shreds, won’t help you one tiny bit during a 60 mph head first ride through a spruce forest. Those same trees are laughing at your “helmet.” Likewise, constant awareness of terrain traps (both small and large) is key.

For more, see our post relating Bruce Tremper’s 10 Commandments of Avalanche Safety.

Also see our extensive avalanche safety coverage.



18 Responses to “3 Tips Keep You Alive in Avalanche Terrain – Discuss”

  1. Crazy Horse December 13th, 2017 10:25 am

    re; Islands of Safety and names of known avalanche paths.

    Back in my days of misspent youth I shared a ski bum house at the base of Cottonwood canyon. The Cliff Lodge at Snowbird was only a year old, but already had acquired a bit of notoriety. There were a couple of trailers left over from construction parked on the north side that had become homes for some of the Lodge help. The Lodge was carefully sighted because the avalanches that frequently strafe the Canyon “never” reach it. Until “never” happened. When the occupants of one of the trailers were dug out they were locked in “the position’ but still breathing. That slide path was forever after known as “Virginia’s Climax.”

  2. Lou Dawson 2 December 13th, 2017 10:37 am

    Crazy, I’d not heard that story, really true!?

  3. Charlie Hagedorn December 13th, 2017 10:37 am

    The biggest key for me: Ruling out terrain (and any other concerns for the day) and sticking to it.

    Ask your ski partners at your morning meeting: “What do we definitely *not* want to do to day?”

    Write it on a piece of tape and stick it to your ski as a reminder for the day.

    To add to your list: “What don’t we know?” is a powerful question that’s moving its way up my priority list.

  4. Crazy Horse December 13th, 2017 11:16 am

    Lou, I always thought it was a skier’s equivalent of an urban legend until years later I happened to meet one of the guys who’d dug them out! But as a lifelong sailor I learned long ago that the best sea stories are enlivened by a good dose of imagination!

  5. Lou Dawson 2 December 13th, 2017 11:37 am

    Charlie, the concept of a ¨run list¨ is something I´m hearing much of, seems to be something worth considering for any fairly active group of backcountry skiers who play the avalanche terrain game. I? all for it. We generally do it ourselves but since I usually don´t hit much in a day anyway, the list is fairly informal. Lou

  6. Zach December 13th, 2017 12:36 pm

    In regards to tip #2:

    In my opinion, in any questionable terrain, the first to drop in should be one of the most if not most competent people in the group to handle undesirable situations that could arise.

    Making a rule where everyone gets a first to drop participation ribbon seems like asking for trouble.

    Of course if you don’t get out mid winter or off the low angle it probably doesn’t matter much.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 December 13th, 2017 2:34 pm

    Hi Zach, I didn’t mean to imply it was a hard rule, just a suggestion as some regular groups seem to have one person who nearly always goes first, that could be spread around thus in my opinion somewhat mitigating placing the same person at risk over and over again. On the other hand, in a group with somewhat mixed abilities, I agree the more experienced should often go first. In any case, it’s a good thing to think about, rather than just going by habit. Lou

  8. JCoates December 13th, 2017 4:02 pm

    Speaking of avy thoughts, anyone want to debate the utility of pit digging? I am no avy expert but it sure seems to me that regular pit digging is akin to collapsible poles: they sound really cool in theory but the more I tour the less I am likely to fiddle with them.

    I think a safety protocol has to be something easy and quick otherwise it’s going to get ignored. I usually don’t feel like the amount of information I get from digging a pit is worth the time spent burning daylight or time spent in an area of possibly objective danger. Yes, I can (and occasionally do) dig a pit at the top of my run in 15 minutes or less, but it doesn’t give me much useful information about the whole run. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

    I know the avalanche gurus don’t get paid enough, but I sure wish someone who calls themselves a snow scientist could start advancing the protocols with some studies on hand pits or other objective and reproducible ways to assess the snow pack that you can do without stopping your tour completely. There has to be a better way…

    While I am on my rant, I think avy travel is 95% about terrain recognition and avoidance. Although I think the AIARE courses are good, I don’t think the level 1 course stresses this enough and wastes too much time on snow analysis. it’s nice to know what grapple looks like under a magnifying glass, but it won’t help me if I’m buried while skinning up a terrain trap.

  9. Aaron December 13th, 2017 6:31 pm

    I did 5 day course with Niko Weis and he was really stressing micro scale slope tests with 2-4 people popping the pimple and adding small ‘relief’ pits to increase stresses if things don’t release on the unadulterated slope and looking at Propagation characteristics at the end of the slab (90 degrees down from skis, 45 out below or parallel or upward from ski tips) and shear character (running far or fast and suddenly?) with a rating scale depending on number of people, knee pulses or jumps or relief digging below. Essentially scaling up pit tests kinda like a rutchblock but way faster and with no rear cuts. We got more things to pop on that course….

    I rarely dig full pits anymore unless getting some baseline info on an area.

    I’ve always tested small slopes alone but adding in the people and relief cuts got way more results, and looking at the characteristics adding some good interpretive value.

  10. Kevin S December 14th, 2017 7:42 am

    Lou to your question on why we’ve had less avy accidents/fatalities the last few years I have a thought process: Due to an increase in water content of our snowfall the last few years the bonding effect, not unlike the PNW, has decreased the number of deadly slides.

    Your thoughts?

  11. Lou Dawson 2 December 14th, 2017 8:39 am

    I’d agree with that, though the effect is not very pronounced as we still have a major number of days with bad avy danger here in Colorado. I figure global warming to be the cause. Lou

  12. Crazy Horse December 14th, 2017 9:29 am

    re Continental vs PNW snow:
    Generally speaking PNW snow and Rocky Mt. snow are as different as fresh water and ocean salt water. PNW storms tend to start warm and only cool few degrees as they progress. Their snow will bond to almost any degree of inclination. And long sequences of fair weather that creates TG metamorphosis are rare. (or at least they used to be)

    But when they do let go, watch out! There is a hanging meadow above Cascade Pass in the North Cascades that I used to frequent in the summer. The avalanche that triggered there was 1/4 mile across and probably 12′ high at the fracture zone and ran 3,000 vertical feet into a mature Douglas Fir forest, snapping 6′ diameter trees like matchsticks.

  13. Jasper December 14th, 2017 7:07 pm

    I like to take a good run and then go home. Thinking in terms of probability, over decades or thousands of ascents/descents in avalanche terrain, you or your friends will eventually get stung by something regardless of quality decision making and high skill levels.

  14. Lou Dawson 2 December 15th, 2017 6:47 am

    Jasper, yeah, the problem of “odds” is a real challenge. But ski touring is not the only thing in life that’s subject to that. Think of driving. Solution for some of us is to take things down a notch or two in terms of expectations and style. Main overall way of doing that is to just be more conservative across the board. But with automobiles and skiing, the technological safety systems are important as well and should always be available, enabled. Whether that be a modern safety equipped automobile or a well trained group of skiers who’ve got their beacons dialed, are sporting airbag rucksacks if appropriate, and have external comm methods such as Inreach or Satphone if cell services is not available, and so on… Lou

  15. Charlie Hagedorn December 15th, 2017 10:12 am

    Regarding run lists and ruling things out: A possible net effect is that you may ski more pow.

    When terrain is ruled out, there’s zero thought expended waffling on whether or not to risk moving into terrain previously-regarded-as-sketchy, making decisions more efficient. Efficiency buys time, and time is pow.

  16. Paul Diegel December 15th, 2017 3:17 pm

    If you forced me to pick my top 3, I’d replace #2 which doesn’t give a lot to act on) with Get the Picture: keep an eye out for Red Flags (recent avalanche activity, wind, heavy snowfall, rapidly warming temps, and cracking and collapsing). I use those to “ground truth” the forecast and remain open to shifting my ambitions up or down based on what I am seeing and the avalanche problems likely to be encountered (eg. if there is a persistent weak layer present, seeing those red flags may shift my ambitions down but not up).

  17. gringo December 21st, 2017 6:16 am

    Indeed rule number 1 is critical. I know it’s not always an easy one as groups always have differing levels and differing ideas, but if one person votes for a mellower line or change to a safer route you must do it.
    This rule would have kept a very dear friend of mine alive. Complacency in the group is just as dangerous as an overconfident or ill informed leader.

  18. Dennis January 3rd, 2018 2:59 pm

    I’d replace any rule with: “Know before you go.” Valuable (best?) time is spent gathering data on current conditions and hazards from NOAA, CAIC, Wild Snow and friends. Then confirming that data as a you go.

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