Knowledge is key in backcountry
Typically, it is people who disrupt the delicate balance between stress and strength in snowpack that causes an avalanche, according to the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center.
“We always like to say that the best thing a person can take into the backcountry is knowledge,” said Doug Abromeit, director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center. “The best thing someone can do before they go into the backcountry is take an avalanche awareness class.”
At the very least, those who venture into the backcountry should check out avalanche safety books (Abromeit recommended “Snow Sense,” by Jill A. Fredston and Doug Fesler) or videos like “Think Like an Avalanche,” available online.
There are motorized and non-motorized avalanche safety tutorials at fsavalanche.org.
In addition to knowledge, anyone who enters the backcountry should have an avalanche beacon, a shovel and probe poles, Abromeit said.
“Oftentimes, people have the first two, but they don’t have probe poles, and those can really cut down on search time,” he said.
According to the National Avalanche Center, three variables interact to determine whether an avalanche is possible: terrain, snowpack and weather.
With terrain, the slope must be steep enough, but not too steep, to create an avalanche. Snow-packed terrain will only become unsteady if the slope is greater than approximately 30 degrees.
Slope meters are available for less than $30 at most backcountry supply stores.
Skiers and snowboarders should note that avalanches don’t just occur in the backcountry. Roughly one-half of all non-motorized avalanche fatalities occur in the out-of-bounds area at ski resorts, Abromeit said.
“I think oftentimes there’s a false sense of security when you’re adjacent to a ski area,” he said. “The minute a person steps out of that boundary, it is an uncontrolled, un-patrolled environment.”
If skiers and snowboarders do go out of bounds, they should expect the same probability of avalanche danger as they would in the backcountry.