Exploring the mountains during the winter months is pure joy for many outdoor enthusiasts. The surreal landscape of undisturbed snow, the still and quiet, and the ease of finding solitude makes winter mountain travel a wonderful experience. With this beauty comes great responsibility; winter storms, exposure to the elements, and tricky navigation can turn a fun outing into a nightmare. Of all the risks the greatest threat is Avalanches.
An avalanche can occur on any slope that is steep enough to slide down, if you can ski, snowboard or glissade down a slope, it is steep enough to produce an avalanche. You don’t even have to be on a slope to trigger an avalanche, It is possible to trigger an avalanche remotely on a nearby slope while still in the valley below.
Being in the mountains in the winter should be regarded as potentially dangerous. However, with the right planning and attention to best practices while moving through avalanche terrain, winter travel in the mountains can be relatively safe.
Know before you go. Always check the local avalanche forecast. Everyone has a different level risk they willing to take in the mountains. Always know the conditions and understand the risks. The best info to have is firsthand knowledge by someone in your group, knowing the conditions personally of the zone you want to travel in is the best practice to stay safe.
Mission Selection: Pick an objective that allows for safe winter travel, this might mean staying below tree line
Route finding – Avoid common terrain traps such as narrow canyons with steep walls, north facing terrain, large exposed faces above tree line.
Communicate with the group – When entering an area that is higher risk, be sure everyone understands the change.
Always carry avy gear – Everyone in the group must carry a probe, beacon, and shovel. Do a beacon check with others in your group before leaving the parking lot. Always turn cell phones off – cell signal will interfere with your beacon.
Don’t make simple assessments – Just because an area has tracks in it does not means it’s safe. The tracks you see may have been made my someone who knows less than you about avalanches or has a much higher risk tolerance than you.
Listen to the snow.- Whumpfing, the sound of collapsing on itself deep within the snowpack is a clue of instability.
Look at the snow – Look for signs of previous avalanche. Bulges of snow on a face may indicate cross loading
Move Quickly – Always move through high risk terrain one at time with the rest of the party actively watching from a safe spot. While in medium risk terrain always maintain distance between members in your party.
Watch each other – When skiing or snowboarding, always do a countdown before entering the objective . “Dropping in 3-2-1” is not for dramatics. It is important that everyone in the group is watching. Do not drop in until the entire group is ready to drop in as well. When a skier or snowboarder starts the countdown, all attention is on them until they reach a safe spot. The second person should not drop in until the first person is out of harms way and is ready to watch the second person.
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