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How to be Avalanche Aware

Backcountry skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is an amazing way to experience the outdoors with friends.

You get the mountain to yourself and get to make those precious first tracks on the snow. It is, however, incredibly important that we understand and acknowledge the risks involved and how to manage those risks correctly. Avalanches are the biggest threat and knowing how to be avalanche aware could be the difference between life and death.


Every year skiers and snowboarders get lost in an avalanche and lose their lives. Those in their twenties have the most fatalities each year with 45 deaths in the USA of 21 to 25 year olds.

Who is at risk?

Basically anyone who recreates in the backcountry during the winter is at risk of facing an avalanche. You can be a skier, snowboarder or snowmobiler; a snowshoer, climber or cross-country skier. Anyone can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Snowmobilers have actually suffered the most fatalities with back country skiers in second position.

How to be Avalanche Aware

Most of the time it is safe to go out adventuring in the backcountry, but the key is being able to recognise when it is not. You basically need to ask yourself these three very important questions:

  1. Is the snow unstable?
  2. Am I in avalanche terrain?
  3. Could I trigger an avalanche?

If you can say yes to any of the above questions then you need to seriously review your circumstances and make responsible decisions about what is safe.

The best way to avoid getting to the point where you ask yourself those three questions above is to use the following advice:

  • Check the report: Before you head out into the backcountry, check the weather report and the current status from your local avalanche centre.
  • Recent avalanches? If there has been a recent avalanche that means the chances are higher that another one may occur.
  • Know your snow: Make sure you are constantly assessing the condition of the snow. Is it cracking or collapsing? Can you hear a hollow, drum like sound on hard snow.
  • Heavy snow/rain? Avalanches are regularly triggered the day after a storm of either snow or rain. Just because it looks beautiful and the sun is shining doesn’t mean it is safe. Control your excitement and remember safety first.
  • Wind-blown snow: Are you skiing in an area of wind-blown snow? Leeward slopes can be very deceiving and even if it hasn’t snowed this area can be heavily loaded.
  • Temperature: When the temperature rapidly heats up gravity can encourage snow to slip down the hill and the snow can become very unstable.

Avalanche Terrain

There are four components that you need to look for to identify avalanche terrain: Slope angle, common trigger points and aspect.

Slope Angle

Most avalanches occur on slopes at an angle of 35-50 degrees but it can happen on a slope of 30 degrees too. Before deciding to ski down a slope, evaluate the whole slope. Steep slopes that transition into a mellow slope could come down from above and bury you. If possible, you should use a slope metre to see if the slope is steep enough to slide. 

Terrain Traps

Terrain trap are features on the slope that have the potential to amplify the consequences of being caught in a slide: trees, cliffs & rocks, gulleys & chutes and bodies of water and ice.

Trigger Points

You can trigger avalanches from below so you need to be just as aware about what is above you as well as below. Look for leeward slopes below a cornice or convex rollovers, as these are signs that the snow above you may be risky.


The stability of a slope can be directly affected by the aspect. Northern aspects tend to get the least sun so they preserve weak layers that can make them less stable. Southern aspects receive more sun so are more stable during the winter however they can be prone to wet slides in the spring. 

Follow Protocol

If you follow this comprehensive list of tips, you will be acting as safely as you can.

  • Stay alert: Make sure you are aware of your environment and spot changes in aspect, elevation or weather.
  • Communicate with your group all the time. Be prepared to do a rescue.
  • Always opt for safety first. Choose the safest route on the ascent and stay close to low angle ridges and dense trees.
  • Go down the slope one at a time from one safe spot to the next.
  • Consider your escape route.
  • Never travel alone.
  • Always travel through the backcountry with an avalanche beacon, probe, shovel and airbag pack.

What to do in the case of an avalanche?

To a friend:

Do not go to get help in the case of an avalanche. You are the victim’s only chance of survival. Asphyxiation is the cause of most avalanche fatalities but if you can get to the victim fast enough you can save them. If you recover the victim in 15 minutes they have a 92% survival rate.

To you:

  • Yell so people can hear you.
  • Try to ski to the side.
  • Fight to stay on the surface.
  • Discard skis and snowboard as they will anchor you.
  • Try to get your hand above the snow.
  • Try to clear a space in front of your mouth.
  • If buried, do not panic. Stay calm and try to relax.

Avalanche Gear

Avalanche airbag: This airbag will float the victim of an avalanche to the surface of the debris and is the victim’s greatest chance of survival with a 98% survival rate.

Avalanche beacon: This beacon follows and electric signal so you can find the buried victim.

Avalanche probe: This helps you verify the depth and location of the buried victim.

Shovel: Dig them out!

Beacon Search

Multiple searches with help reduce the recovery time. Start probing where your lowest distance reading is located.


Probe in concentric circles until you strike the victim. Make each probe hole about 10 inches apart. Leave the probe in the snow once you find the victim.


Shovelling takes the most time in a rescue and can be very tiring. In burials deeper than 1 meter start digging downhill of the probe. If there is one of you, then make a hole one wingspam wide. If there are two of you make the hole two wingspans wide.

Reprinted courtesy of Backcountry Access.

Kate Thomas November 01, 2013 15 tags (show)

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