Avoiding Avalanches While Backcountry Skiing or Snowboarding

Avoiding Avalanches While Backcountry Skiing or Snowboarding
Few activities are more exhilarating than backcountry skiing or snowboarding. The lack of crowds and lift lines, as well as the chance to experience untracked snow gives the expert skier or rider the ultimate sense or freedom. However, the backcountry is not without its dangers. Avalanches occur throughout the United States and around the world in mountainous terrain during the winter months. All avalanches share some common elements. Every avalanche must have a trigger--either human, animal, or a natural cause--and a start zone where the avalanche begins. They also always have a slide path and a debris deposit of accumulated snow, a place where the slide comes to rest. Being prepared for this natural phenomenon is crucial to safety.


Difficulty: Challenging

Avoiding Avalanches While Backcountry Skiing or Snowboarding

Things You’ll Need:
  • Backcountry skiing or snowboarding equipment
  • Avalanche beacon
  • Avalanche probe
  • Avalanche shovel
Step 1
Improve your skiing or snowboarding skills. The backcountry requires expert, not just advanced skills. You need to be skilled at deep powder and extremely steep skiing or riding. Less-competent skiers and riders may inadvertently set off an avalanche.
Step 2
Hire a trained guide. Backcountry guides are familiar with avalanche warning signs and avalanche avoidance techniques.
Step 3
Pack the proper equipment, which includes an avalanche beacon, probe, shovel and backcountry ski and snowboard gear.
Step 4
Understand the avalanche risks of a given slope. Slope angles that exceed 25 degrees are more prone to avalanches than flatter slopes. Additionally, recent accumulation of snow combined with heavy wind might precipitate an avalanche. During spring conditions, when slushy snow is higher than your boot, the slopes may be especially prone to avalanches. Additionally, if a similar slope has recently experienced a slide, the slope you are considering might also be susceptible. All of this information will be readily available in a local weather report and newspaper. You can also use the searchable avalanche incident database listed in the resource section.
Step 5
Learn about potential avalanche start locations. These are also called crown fracture points, and include areas such as trees, cornices, and rock faces. If weather conditions predispose an area to avalanches, there's a strong possibility that one will start in any of these areas.

Tips & Warnings

In the winter, north-facing or shady slopes are more prone to avalanches. In the spring, the warmer, south-facing slopes are more susceptible to slides.
Never ski or ride solo in the backcountry.

Article Written By Lisa Mercer

In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.

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