Protect yourself from avalanches in the backcountry
January 28, 2012
Steamboat Springs — The best advice, American Avalanche Association President Dale Atkins said, is to wait. Wait until the snow has settled after the big storm when avalanche danger is at its peak. Wait for another day. Wait until next year.
Miserable snow totals early in the season and rotten weather since have given the backcountry snowpack a base that looks more like granulated sugar than Champagne Powder.
That's not going to change.
"I hate to say the season is shot, but these weaknesses will be with us for the season," Atkins said. "This is really a winter to dial back one's expectations for adventure, for tackling the steep and deep. This is a season to stay to the less steep slopes and to be extra cautious."
Last weekend's avalanche tragedy in Routt National Forest has Ski Town USA buzzing about the danger. It can't be eliminated, and the best way to learn to manage it is by taking a class and studying the conditions. In the meantime, there are several ways anyone can minimize that danger.
The 'duh' gear
Stocking up on appropriate safety equipment for a backcountry adventure almost goes without saying.
We'll say it anyway: An avalanche beacon, a shovel and an avalanche probe are a must.
"One piece doesn't do it," said Ben Brodsky at Ski Haus. "They're meant to be used in conjunction. You need all three."
Brodsky said avalanche beacons can wear out, so don't just assume a fresh set of batteries will make yours work. An upgrade may be in order after five years. Expect to spend close to $300 on a beacon and another $100 combined on a collapsible shovel and probe.
In so many ways, a cellphone can be a lifesaver, at least one with a charged battery. Atkins said a phone call should be the first step to rescuing a friend, even before pulling out the beacon or the shovel. Make sure you have enough juice by packing an extra battery or a solar or crank charger, all available for less than $30.
A quick check online with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website can tell you all about the avalanche danger in the backcountry, but keeping your eyes and ears open while out there can be even more important.
■ Look for clues in the vegetation. Have trees been broken off or branches stripped from their uphill face? That means avalanches have happened there before, and although it's not a clue of imminent danger, it means they could happen again.
■ Slopes of a 30-degree pitch and steeper typically are primary avalanche terrain. This year, Atkins said he's wary even of 25-degree pitches. For a reference point, black diamond runs usually are at 30 degrees or steeper. Intermediate runs are less steep, and a similar pitch in the backcountry will be much safer.
■ "The best clue of avalanche danger is recent avalanches," Atkins said. Considering a slope's elevation, compass orientation and pitch will provide a big clue as to what is likely to slide next. Old rules say an avalanche within 48 hours can be useful for that sort of information. This season, a slide still can be useful five or seven days out.
■ Listen to the snow. If it's collapsing beneath your feet with a "whoomph" sound or cracks are spidering out from each footprint, that means the snow on the bottom is in bad shape and the whole slab could give. Most avalanches occur naturally, but the vast majority that lead to injuries and deaths are caused by their victims.
1 at a time
"Expose only one person to the danger at a time," Atkins said. Only send one member of the group across or onto it at a time, ensuring even if the snow does give way, most of the party is on hand to help.
That means don't zip up a dangerous slope on a snowmobile to help a buddy dig a sled out, and it means it may take longer to get a group of skiers across a section.
Time to fly
If an avalanche is coming, always be thinking of a way out. Ski or ride at a 45-degree angle down the slope to get out of the way and maintain speed. Ducking into a boulder field or treed terrain carries risks, but those features also can break up the power of the snow and give you something to hang onto if the worst happens.
So it got you. All is not lost, Atkins said. Survivors have been pulled from avalanche fields 24 and even 48 hours after the fall. The first move to better your chances is to let go of your ski poles and non-survival equipment and try and grab onto something solid that isn't likely to get pushed downhill, such as one of those trees or boulders. "You may not be able to hang on, but every second you do, you've let that much more snow go by that can't bury you," Atkins said.
If there's nothing to grab onto, put your arms to your mouth and try to create as much space around your face as possible while the snow is moving.
"Grab your collar or pack strap so you can tuck your face into the crook of your elbow," Atkins said.
Then try to wiggle and climb. You may end up near the surface.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com