Avalanche Safety

Safety in the backcountry is about understanding and minimizing your risks and having options available to help you if things go wrong. You should understand that there is nothing safe about being in the backcountry. There is no ski patrol to bomb the slopes or come to your rescue if you get hurt.

Minimizing your risks is about making the right decisions. You need to know what kind of terrain to avoid. Most avalanches happen on slopes of pitch between 30 degrees and 45 degrees. As the slope gets steeper, a slide becomes more likely. Yes, a 25 degree slope can slide. So can a 50 degree slope. We tend to want to ski areas where all or most of the trees have been cleared away. That’s prime avalanche terrain.

To learn more about evaluating terrain and reacting to your observations, pick up
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper.

(The links on this page to avalanche safety literature and equipment are Amazon Affiliate Links. Our recommendations should not be considered professional advice. When it comes to safety gear, you should compare all of the brands and read all the reviews and make your own decision.)

Here are some rules of thumb:

Never travel alone. It’s important to travel intelligently with a friend or a group of friends. Don’t let more than 1 person be exposed to potential avalanche danger at once. Don’t stop to wait for your friends in a position where you could be buried from above and don’t endanger another group by dropping into something above them. Be sure the area you choose as a safe point to stop is really safe, including from slides that could be triggered remotely. Keep your eyes on the other members of your group while they’re skiing and shout a warning if you see a sign of imminent danger. The smartest groups carry 2-way radios in case they become separated.

Know the conditions. You should read the avalanche forecast every day so you understand how the snow pack is changing. You should know the weather forecast and be prepared for surprises. If you plan to ski something, you should get out to the zone as often as you can to test the conditions. Dig around in the snow. Check how it’s been affected by the wind and the sun, and not just in 1 spot. Examine a North aspect, and a South aspect, and a Southeast aspect, and so on. Be aware that wind loading can deposit dangerous levels of snow in isolated and often unexpected pockets of the mountain.

You can learn about techniques for digging snow pits to evaluate snow pack by taking an avalanche course. These classes also have other valuable lessons to impart. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) is considered the standard in North America. You should take, at minimum, AIARE 1 & 2. You can find a class near you on the AIARE Course Listing Homepage.

Remember: If there’s fresh snow, things will inevitably be dangerous in the backcountry.

Know the terrain. Open areas without trees are more likely to slide. Gullies, stream beds, chutes and couloirs form terrain traps, which funnel massive amounts of snow on top of anyone unfortunate enough to become caught in a slide. An avalanche above trees or rocks can also be disastrous, as you can quickly get moving fast enough to impact with deadly force. Cliffs and cornices can threaten a line, and in the case of cornices, they can also break off and trigger an avalanche from above you.

If you want to ski an area, go there and look at it whenever you can. You want to learn the danger zones, and you want to be comfortable getting in and out. Studying avalanche reports can give you an idea of the sort of terrain that slides most frequently and the consequences of even a small avalanche. There are some at the bottom of this page. Please study them carefully and take the risks of backcountry travel to heart. You should understand that many avalanches go unreported and many more reports have been lost to the passage of time. Whether or not you’re able to find any avalanche reports in a particular zone, you should assume that it slides from time to time if it’s steeper than 20 degrees.

If something goes wrong, you’ll need to know how to use your gear:

A Beacon, a Probe, and a Shovel are essential. You should also have a First Aid Kit, and if you’re traveling into the backcountry, you should have enough supplies to survive a night in the wilderness. An Airbag Backpack is expensive, but if you can afford it, the investment could save your life if you’re caught in a slide.

(The links on this page to avalanche safety literature and equipment are Amazon Affiliate Links. Our recommendations should not be considered professional advice. When it comes to safety gear, you should compare all of the brands and read all the reviews and make your own decision.)

Avalanche Reports

It’s tragic when someone is hurt or killed in an avalanche. We need to learn whatever we can from these incidents. Understand the risks and understand the dangers. May the victims of these accidents rest in peace. These are detailed reports with pictures and analysis:

04/08/2018 (Aspen Highlands Backcountry, Colorado)

02/15/2014 (Star Mountain, Colorado)

01/07/2014 (East Vail, Colorado)

02/10/2014 (Keystone Backcountry, Colorado)

12/27/2013 (Loveland Pass, Colorado)

04/20/2013 (Loveland Pass, Colorado)

04/18/2013 (Vail Pass, Colorado)

03/02/2013 (Neversummer Mountains, Colorado)

02/07/2013 (Berthoud Pass, Colorado)

02/02/2013 (Silverton Backcountry, Colorado)

02/02/2013 (Silverton Backcountry, Colorado)

01/27/2013 (Kendall Mountain, Colorado)

01/13/2013 (Marble, Colorado)

03/30/2012 (Ophir Pass, Colorado)

02/25/2012 (Big Horn Gulch, Colorado)

02/16/2012 (Wolf Creek Backcountry, Colorado)

02/13/2012 (Vail Backcountry, Colorado)

01/25/2012 (Montezuma, Colorado)

*Amazon Affiliate Links
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