Avalanche season upon us

Clinic provides important information to help backcountry users stay safe

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— Avalanche season has arrived, and because of the recent warm weather, snow layers have been weakened, increasing the danger of avalanches in the area.

Jeff Hirschboeck, ski patrol officer, said at an avalanche safety clinic Friday that the beginning of the winter season came with heavy, wet snow that created a solid snow base. He said although a solid snow base is an ideal condition for preventing avalanches, additional weak layers accumulated throughout the winter would create unstable snow conditions that could give rise to avalanches.

"If you think the snow you're on is safe, make sure and ask yourself why," he said.

He recommended using a ski pole and pushing down through the snow to see if there are any apparent weaknesses in the snow layers. Hirschboeck said a group of people could do a "jump" test in an area higher than a potential avalanche site to see if the snow settles with a "whoop."

Nick Logan of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said temperature is the key to stable snow layers. He said when there is little temperature difference between the snow layers, a strong snow pack develops.

He said water generated from snowmelts weakens the snow layers by either spreading out over a snow layer and acting as a lubricant or melting down through the snow layers, destroying the bonds between snow molecules. Instability in the snow pack from melting snow (which looks like sugar snow) can be diagnosed by digging a snow pit, avoiding potential avalanche conditions, Logan said.

In addition to snow layer strength, Logan said wind and pressure are also primary factors in the occurrence of avalanches. He said when people are in the backcountry, they should be aware of which way the wind is blowing to see where snow is being redeposited. Drifts of snow, he said, can be avalanche prone because of the large amount of snow that is redeposited to another location. He said that receiving a lot of snow in a short period of time puts a lot of pressure on lower snow layers, and the added weight of a person can trigger an avalanche. Logan said avalanche conditions can change in only a few hours depending on the weather.

Logan said he thinks a person can never be too confident about avalanche awareness but noted ski patrol officers, trained in avalanche safety, rarely are caught in an avalanche when compared to backcountry sport participants.

"There are no black and white answers to avalanche safety," he said.

Logan recommended getting familiar with terrain in the summertime. He said the safest areas to be in the winter were in the valleys and dense trees. He said trees with the branches cleaned off on the uphill side were often clues that an avalanche had occurred.

Logan said that even with the best knowledge, a person can't always diagnose avalanche conditions.

He said the most common and lethal mistake people make when they are caught in an avalanche is running to get help instead of staying and trying to recover their group members. He said if victims are recovered in the first 15 minutes, they have a 90-percent survival rate, but after 30 minutes they have less than a 50-percent chance for survival.

To prepare for an avalanche, Logan said he recommends every person carry a small shovel and a transceiver that can be used to locate a person buried in the snow. He said that only one person at a time should cross a potential avalanche area so other people can be available to help rescue a member of the group if he or she is caught in a slide.

Matt Pierce, a technical representative for Ortovox (a transceiver), said he travels and teaches people to use transceivers so they are well practiced with the devices before venturing into avalanche-prone country. He said there are a lot of built-in devices in their transceivers to limit the number of things a person has to do when in search of a friend buried under the snow. Logan and Pierce both recommend people practice using his or her transceivers and receive enough training to react adeptly in case of an avalanche.

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