Avoid Death, Get Avy Smart!

Written by Payton Lee in Travel Tips


Alpine tragedy: 2 US ski team prospects killed in avalanche


Dave Rosenbarger Dies in Avalanche


It's real, and it's scary. Going on an epic ski trip should not include these headlines. The first two men were in the Austrian Alps when they triggered a massive slide that ended their lives. The second guy, Dave, was in Italy skiing with three buddies who helped dig him out. But his injuries were severe and he died at the hospital.

Find the full story of US ski team boys here

Find the full story of Dave here

Avalanches are a powerful thing. They are unpredictable, unstable, and underestimated. On average there are 38.875 deaths in the US per season. (this data since 1998 from avalanche.org) Most of these cases include people who are considered good to great skiers. This just goes to show that the danger of avalanches leaves no one safe. In recent years there has been a greater attempt to educate people on these dangers. Unfortunately, there are still many that choose to ignore signs or let pride and glory guide their decisions.

As adventure travelers we are constantly seeking the thrill of activities like off piste skiing, steep runs, and lots and lots of powder. But, being in new places means unfamiliarity with terrain and conditions. This sort of environment makes it even more important to do pre-trip research.

What You Should Know About Avalanches:
Types of Avalanches:

Loose Snow Slides- upper layers of snow pick up and move more snow on the way down

Slab- one or more layers break away together when the layers don't cohease together

Cornice Collapses- windblown snow that builds out horizontally breaks off and tumbles downhill

Ice- unstable ice blocks from glaciers break offSnow Sense by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler

There are four variables that affect the threats and hazards of avalanches. Paying attention to snow pack, weather, terrain, and the human factor will help keep you safer. Before entering an off-piste or dangerous ski area it's important to ask the following questions:

1. Is the terrain capable of producing avalanches?

2. Could the snow slide?

3. Is the weather contributing to instability?

4. What are your alternatives and their possible consequences?


Before strapping on those planks and stiff boots it's important to get ahead of the game by looking at weather patterns, avy warnings, common slide areas, and the amount of snowfall they have had. Every mountain is different and slides are unique and dependent on those four variables listed above. Understanding terrain, snow pack and weather helps prevent the human trigger and possible deadly situations.

Terrain: greater slope angle = greater stress on slabs

The most common slides occur on slopes between 35-40 degrees. The slopes under 35 don't have that much stress and the slopes over 40 degrees have so much stress that snow never sticks. The orientation of the slope also plays a factor. Which direction is it facing? Are there winds or is the sun out? Windblown snow becomes hollow and sugary. Slopes in the shadows don't bond well because of the lack of warmth.

Also is there anything on the slope to anchor the snow? Trees, bushes, and rocks help hold snow in place creating a smaller threat for slides.

Snowpack: Warmer temps = less instability between layers

Strong and weak bonding make a difference between layers. Each new snowfall is a layer and may or may not bond well with the previous layer. There are a few clues to determine the type of snow under your feet. Check for recent activity on similar slopes, listen for whumphing and hollow noises, cracks and wind loading. All of these are signs of snow that has not bonded well with other layers and is hence more susceptible to sliding.

Weather: Heavy precipitation, strong wind, and rapid flux in temperatures = unstable snow conditions

Rapid changing weather conditions affect how the snow feels, bonds, and doesn't bond. We all love the big dumps of powder on our mountains, but this creates a heavy load for the base layer to hold on to. Long, cold, clear, calm periods of weather tend to create a hard crust layer that makes it difficult for new layers to bond to. Strong winds create cornices and other trouble spots that may break off and crumble down, creating other slides. Sun and rapid rising temps create slippery layers melting underneath. All of these conditions cause hazardous situations. This is why it is important to scope out weather conditions before you get to where ever you are going and during your trip.

snowy mountain

There are more and more skiers braving off-piste and backcountry areas. These un-groomed natural terrains are paradise, but one that should never be underestimated. The last major factor of avalanche danger is the human factor.

Snowmobiles, skiers, snowboarders, and even snowshoers put an added force on snow. Assumptions and hubris attitudes lead to consequences. Respect the snow, weather, and terrain in order to keep your backcountry experience a heavenly one.


About the Author

Payton Lee

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Constantly Teaching, Forever Learning.

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