Avalanche Basics for Backcountry Travelers

Avalanche Basics for Backcountry Travelers
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding opens up a new world of vertical pleasure and descents. Telemark or Apline Touring skiers frequently "earn their turns" by climbing the mountains and slopes before dropping down steep lines and untracked powder covered mountains. With travel in the backcountry comes the danger of avalanches. Learning how to navigate, use the needed gear and assess slope angle or avalanche danger is a necessary skill if heading into the wild and open backcountry.

Beacon, Probe and Shovel

Before heading into the mountains or avalanche country, get and learn how to use an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. The avalanche beacon is a digital device that transmits signals on a routine schedule to alert other beacon users of your presence. Beacons switch between transmit and search. Learn how to use the search function to pinpoint buried ski or travel partners should avalanches take out part of your party. Probes are long, telescoping poles with a metal tip designed to go into the snow and push down, feeling for bodies after an avalanche, and after the initial beacon search has located an approximate area of the victim. The shovel is used for digging when the victim is found with the beacon and probe. No backcountry mountain traveler should ever be without these three pieces of equipment, and the knowledge and practice of how to use them.


Exposure, Wind and Slope and Angle

Skills to assess and navigate steep mountain slopes are crucial to any travel through avalanche country. Purchase an inclinometer, a small card or electronic device that accurately measures slope angle. Take readings of slope angles when beginning any ascents or traverses. Understand too, that most avalanches occur on slopes between 20 and 45 degrees, the angles most backcountry travel and skiing are done on. Learn how to pick up the prevailing wind directions of the mountains you are in. Wind affects snow by packing it down and creating layers of differing hardnesses and compressions, creating hazardous situations for avalanches. Stay to the leeward side of the prevailing wind if possible, or the opposite side of the slopes, where there is protection from wind. Exposure is the direction the slope faces. If the slope faces south, it is considered to have a north exposure, and vice versa. Exposure is important when figuring in sun and radiation damage to the snow.

Setting a Course

When setting out on an ascent or direction through avalanche country, travel in a single file line, and space out between travelers a minimum of 75 feet from each other. Never cross couloirs or gullies stacked up under the top of the couloir. When crossing open avalanche chutes, cross one at a time, with each member of the party acting as a look-out for the skier crossing the chute. If a slide happens, as the look-out, look for sight last seen (SLS), where the slide started, and where the slide ended. Look for any indication of swept away victims such as packs, skis or other indicators.



Article Written By Eric Cedric

A former Alaskan of 20 years, Eric Cedric now resides in California. He's published in "Outside" and "Backpacker" and has written a book on life in small-town Alaska, "North by Southeast." Cedric was a professional mountain guide and backcountry expedition leader for 18 years. He worked in Russia, Iceland, Greece, Turkey and Belize. Cedric attended Syracuse University and is a private pilot.

The Latest from the Trails.com Community