Avalanche safety tip of the week
By Brandon Schwartzspecial to the action
When traveling in avalanche terrain it is important to move from one island of safety to the next. This is the case while ascending, descending and traversing. Many backcountry travelers have become complacent by often traveling during periods of relatively good snowpack stability. This is reflected in their poor choice or lack of use of islands of safety.Islands of safety are areas where the terrain is not steep enough to avalanche (less than 25 degrees) and where you are well clear of avalanche runout zones. An island of safety could also be an area well protected from avalanches coming down from above by large, very dense trees. If you are standing in low angle terrain with steeper slopes above and you notice that the trees around you have no limbs on the uphill side or are bent or broken, you are standing in an avalanche runout zone.
It is most desirable to expose only one person at a time to avalanche terrain. If your island of safety is poor, more than one person is exposed at a time. If your travel partner triggers an avalanche, it is critical that you are in a safe place out of the avalanche path and able to maintain visual contact with your travel partner. If you are also in the avalanche path or cannot see your partner, you are not giving them the amount of help that you would hope to receive if your places were reversed. When descending on skis or a snowboard, stop on the side of the avalanche path behind large trees that you could grab onto at a moments notice. This usually means that you are so close to the tree that you have to look through the branches to see your partner. Do not stop in the middle of the slope.
Likewise, if you are highmarking on a snowmobile, make sure that your partner is well out of the runout zone and available to help should you trigger an avalanche. It is not always the first person on a slope that triggers an avalanche. Many documented avalanche accidents involve human triggering of a slope that was already covered by ski or snowmobile tracks.Most of us are much better at picking safe terrain and identifying good islands of safety than we are at making snow stability observations and decisions. The more we base our decisions on snowpack stability, the worse off we are from a safety standpoint. Stack the odds in your favor. As a skier or snowboarder, do not set or follow exposed uphill routes. Make good use of islands of safety during all travel in avalanche terrain. As a snowmobiler, highmark slopes one at a time and have your travel partner watch you from a safe location should the slope your are on avalanche. Habitual use of safe travel practices is an integral part of a long career of fun backcountry travel.Brandon Schwartz is the Avalanche Forecaster for the Sierra Avalanche Center and U.S. Forest Service in the Tahoe region. Look for a new avalanche awareness or safety tip each week here in the action.
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