Avalanche Safety Basics

You’ve heard it a million times before because it’s true; skiing in the backcountry is dangerous and ignorance is a killer.

You know the drill, never go alone, pack a shovel and a probe for digging your friends out, and wear your transceiver. Know how to use them, otherwise they’re as much use as a chocolate teapot. Do your homework and get as much knowledge as you can about travelling safely and picking sensible lines in unfamiliar terrain. Hire a guide if you’re unsure or inexperienced. Check the local avalanche forecast before heading out, they know more than you do, and always keep an eye out for these five red flags:

Signs of Recent Avalanches

No sh*t, right?! It might sound obvious, but keep your eyes peeled for slides at similar altitudes and aspects to the faces you plan to ski. If you know the terrain well, you’ll be familiar with the danger faces, if you don’t, be extra vigilant.

Fresh Snow

90% of human triggered avalanches happen with 24 hours of fresh snowfall. We’ve all been guilty of taking risks when there’s new snow, after all, fresh snow waits for no man. But, if you treat the snowpack as deadly for those first 24 hours you’ll have reduced the risk of getting buried significantly.

Strong Winds

Strong winds transports snow from the windward side of a ridge or peak to the leeward side. Not only does wind transport snow into loaded pockets, it breaks down the crystal structure of the snow into smaller particles that bond well with each other, but not with the snow beneath. The result is the perfect recipe for a slab avalanche. Stay acutely aware of the wind direction and strength before you go.

Cracks & Whoops

If you see cracks propagating from around you, feel the snow beneath you drop and settle or hear a whoop, stay calm and get out of there pronto! Be sure to plan your route home across safe terrain with minimal exposure. You just had a close call.

Temperature Rise

The snowpack is very sensitive to temperature changes. If the air temperature is very cold for a sustained period, weak, sugary, faceted crystals will form within the snowpack and cause avalanches. Conversely, if the ambient temperature rises quickly, the top layers will melt and become heavier creating tension in the snowpack. This is particularly dangerous after recent snowfalls. Although determining faceted weak layers and understanding their implications is a job for experienced backcountry travellers and guides, staying aware of rising temperatures is easy… so no excuses.

There are some fantastic Avalanche resources from the likes of Ortovox, Salomon and Jones Snowboards, to name but a few. Check them out, who knows, they might someday save your life or a friend’s.

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