Avalanche Safety- What You Need To Know

Last week we went to a winter activity demonstration day at Lolo Visitor’s Pass, on the border of Montana and Idaho, and it’s also located on the historic Nez Pierce Trail and Lewis and Clark Trail. This is the third year they have done this event. They hold this even to educate the public and give people an opportunity to try certain winter sports. One of the demonstrations this year was avalanche safety and there was a course where you could practice finding a beacon. Thank you West Central Montana Avalanche Center for being part of this event and educating others.

Avalanches are extremely dangerous and are a real concern when you are skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and other winter activities. They don’t occur just in the back country, they also occur at ski resorts and even in your backyard if you live in the mountains. On average, 27-28 people die each year from avalanches. This post is not meant to deter you from your winter activities, but to educate you and keep you safe.

What causes avalanches? There are many factors to what causes avalanches, but over 90% of recreational avalanche fatalities are triggered by the people involved. It can be at times impossible to predict an avalanche. An avalanche is when the snow pack is unstable, and something causes it to buckle and move. Loose snow avalanches start at a point or over a small area and grow in size and quantity. A slab avalanche is when a large area of snow starts to slide at once. Both types of avalanches can be deadly. If someone is caught in an avalanche and buried the first ten minutes is crucial and after 35 minutes, a buried victim has less than 25% chance of survival. By being aware and prepared, you are less likely to encounter avalanches and have a higher survival rate if you are buried. Any slope steeper than 30 degrees is at risk of causing an avalanche. The following tips are not guaranteed to prevent avalanches but can help you reduce your risk by better understanding the risks and how to recognize possible avalanche areas.

Check Avalanche Reports– Before you set off on your winter adventures, check with the your local avalanche monitoring service. There are five different types of avalanche warnings rated low to high. If the warning is low, this means it is generally safe in avalanche terrain. If the warning is high, it is extremely likely for an avalanche to occur and you should avoid all avalanche terrain.

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Be Aware Of Your Surroundings– Check the area you are in before moving forward. If there are recent avalanches, this is a sign that more are possible. Check for signs of unstable snow such as cracks and fissures, woofing sounds made by the snow and a hollow-sound when on hard snow. If there has been a heavy snowfall or rain in the last 24 hours, this can make the snow pack extremely unstable. Wind-blow snow drifts can also be a sign of unstable conditions because the snow pack is very soft. When there is significant warming or increased temperatures, this can also cause slopes to become unstable. If you are aware that there were previous avalanches in a specific area in recent years, it’s recommended to stay clear.

Minimize Your Risk– Never expose more than one person at a time to avalanche danger. Watch each other closely from a distance. Do not stop in or beneath avalanche paths. Be aware of changing snow stability due to weather or elevation. Stay in communication with others. Choose the safest route when descending, and stick to low angle ridges and dense trees. Descend one at a time.

Be Prepared For A Rescue– Do not go into avalanche territory alone because if you are stuck in an avalanche, you will have no one to get you out. The three most important pieces of essential equipment to have when in avalanche country are the “Avalanche Survival Trifecta”- a shovel, a probe and an avalanche beacon. It is recommended that these items be in your pack and on your person. This way, you are less likely to be separated from your tools if you are a rescuer and more likely be able to possibly get yourself out if you are a victim.  There are some recommendations that recreation users should pack with them an avalanche airbag pack, but it’s not considered essential. There is a lot of data that it can possible give you a higher survival rate if caught in an avalanche, but it also depends on what type of avalanche and is not guaranteed to save you. 

My aunt had a brother killed in an avalanche on November 25th, 1989. Here is Mark’s story as told by his sister Ann Miller Hansen: “My brother Mark Robert Miller was downhill skiing – he frequently hiked to the top of peaks with his skis on his back and skiied down. He was doing that when he was killed. To our knowledge this was the first time he had done it alone. He and some friends had planned to go to one of the resorts near Salt Lake, but each of the friends had to pull out at the last minute. It was Thanksgiving weekend, the first snow had fallen and Mark wanted to be on a mountain, so he drove up Logan Canyon to Tony Grove Lake in the Mt. Naomi wilderness area. This is about halfway between Logan and Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border.

My parents only realized that he was missing about 6 that evening when one of the friends he was supposed to have gone skiing with came over. They were able to retrace his steps enough to know where he had probably gone. Dad drove up to Tony Grove and found Mark’s truck. Dad stayed there all night waiting and praying. This was all in the days before cell phones. Dad’s biggest worry was that Mark might have fallen in one of the many sink hole caverns in the area. The official search started at daylight but was halted a few hours later when a dangerous blizzard blew in. 30 hours later the search resumed and lasted 2 weeks. A few days after Mark disappeared he appeared in dreams to both my cousin and my aunt, who lived in separate locations in California and did not know he had disappeared. My parents told the sherriff, who believed them. But he explained that for many of the professionals and the volunteers, if the search was unsuccessful they tended to blame themselves and carry a lot of guilt unless the search had continued long enough that there could no longer be hope of life. That was why they kept looking for two weeks.

Friends and strangers kept looking throughout the winter. One of those always took his dogs. On Memorial Day he was ina bowl above Tony Grove Lake. The dogs started sniffing and barking. He started digging and found a glove. He drove back to Logan to get help and later that day they found Mark’s body under 10 feet of snow. He had just taken off his skis when he must have seen the avalanche coming because he had lied down in avalanche position so that his arms would provide an air pocket. His ski equipment and backpack were close by. He had food and light and fire sources in his backpack. If he had still had his skis on he might have been able to out ski the avalanche. The coroner said he died instantly when the weight of the snow pushed all the air from his lungs. My sister and brothers, who identified his body, said he looked physically smaller, as if he had been compressed. Ironically, he had been accepted by an insitute in Switzerland and was scheduled to start their course in January to become a certified avalanche rescue worker.”

It’s always better be safe than sorry. Be aware and be prepared. Spending time in the snow can be great, it’s just better to know the risks. For more information and tips on avalanche safety and warnings, you can go to avalanche.org. And don’t forget, be outside with no limits.