Tahoe Chief’s Corner: Hey, we practically invented avalanches here…
January 9, 2017
Soooo … interesting weekend, eh? In addition to flooding issues and the random mud slide, the big news was avalanches.
It will be interesting to see what effect the torrential rains had — hopefully the new snow received last week will consolidate with the hard, icy base and give us a durable and long-lasting snowpack that will assure both great skiing and a solid, gradual summer runoff. As firefighters, a huge winter snowfall can be a summertime asset. As rescuers, it can be a mixed blessing.
The Lake Tahoe area — blessed with awesome terrain and typically abundant snowfalls — is also one of the most active and dangerous avalanche areas in the United States. It is the place that the man known as the father of American avalanche control,Montgomery Atwater, faced some of his most daunting challenges.
Atwater spent several years in Squaw Valley developing an avalanche control plan for the 1960 Olympics. As described in his book, The Avalanche Hunters, "Squaw Valley in 1956 was a one-lift, one-lodge ski area at the end of a dirt road. It lies in the coastal alpine zone, characterized by very heavy snowfall (eight hundred inches in 1951-52), prolonged storms (a hundred inches in one outburst is not unusual), midwinter rain (several times per season), and soft-slab avalanches, predominantly."
While the wonderful — and highly avalanche prone — terrain in-bounds at Squaw Valley has been the subject of diligent snow safety study and practice by experts for the last 67 years, the equally steep and snow covered terrain in the Tahoe backcountry has NOT: Every backcountry skier, snowboarder and snowmobiler has to be his or her own avalanche expert.
Fortunately, there are some really good resources available to better understand avalanches, terrain and snow conditions.
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"Know Before You Go" is a terrific, beautifully produced 15-minute video on backcountry avalanche risk and gear — https://vimeo.com/144545554. It is a fabulous video, don't miss it!
The Sierra Avalanche Center, our own local avalanche authority, provides daily avalanche advisories, observations and weather forecasting on their website in a highly understandable and comprehensive format — http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/advisory.
A number of local entities offer the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 1, 2 and 3 classes — https://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/education. Squaw Valley Professional Ski Patrol offers avalanche transceiver classes —call 530-581-7260.
The fabulous SAFE-AS clinics provide a great opportunity for women to learn from some of our most proficient and respected local athletes and patrollers — http://www.safeasclinics.com.
These are only a few of the resources available locally to help you interact with the mountain environment. Regardless of your mode for enjoying the backcountry, recreating in it without some degree of avalanche awareness training is a foolish and potentially deadly proposition.
Take advantage of the educational resources available and gain a whole new appreciation for our phenomenal natural environment as well.
Pete Bansen is chief of the Squaw Valley Fire Department. Visit svpsd.org/svfd/fire to learn more.