December 1, 2007

Avalanche Preparedness



Are you ready?

It’s that time of year again. As the leaves start to fall off the trees and the nights start to get colder … one thinks about crisp winter days riding snowmobiles in endless fields of powder.

Your trailer is ready to hook up and your snowmobile fleet is ready to hit the trail. What else might you start thinking about? It is time to start thinking about riding in avalanche terrain. Your favorite places to go highmarking or bust through cornices onto a ridge are also the slopes that are prone to turning a great day in the backcountry into a tragic one ... because of an avalanche.

Let’s look at some of the facts. During the 2006-07 season, 13 of 24 avalanche fatalities were snowmobilers. This trend has been on the rise since 1994, when snowmobile technology began allowing people to get deeper and farther into avalanche terrain. Every backcountry user group has gone through this spike in avalanche fatalities. It started with climbers in the 70s, backcountry skiers in the 80s and snowboarders in the 90s. New technology allowed people to get to places they have not been able to do so before. New boundaries meant new risks and hazards. This is an unfortunate yet natural progression and you could classify it as “growing pains” of not only the snowmobile community but also each backcountry winter sport.

It seems that every snowmobile enthusiast in the United States and Canada is now equipped with a machine that allows them to travel through and play in avalanche terrain.  What has to catch up with this technology is avalanche education and carrying the proper equipment to deal with an avalanche incident.

Avalanches occur when the stress of the snow exceeds its strength. When traveling in avalanche terrain, there is always the possibility of an avalanche occurring. Avalanches surprise even the most seasoned avalanche professionals. If the people who study, teach, forecast and work in avalanche terrain can be surprised, those with less experience have a higher probability to be involved in an avalanche incident. Education and experience are the best ways to reduce your risk.

Challenge yourself for the 2007-08 season. Take an avalanche class with the people you normally go snowmobiling with. Basic avalanche awareness classes can be found all over the western United States and Canada and are great to attend each year … just to get you thinking. Basic avalanche awareness classes usually are one to two hours long during an evening. Some follow up the next day with a half-day in the field focusing on rescue and the use of avalanche beacons. Every avalanche center puts on multiple basic avalanche awareness classes each year. If you are part of a group or club, book a class with the nearest avalanche center. That is one reason why we are here, to help educate you on the dangers of avalanches and what to do if an avalanche does happen.

Knowledge is power.

Here are some thoughts on how to be prepared and stay safe while riding in avalanche terrain for the rest of your life. Incorporating the following information every time you go snowmobiling will drastically reduce your risk in becoming involved in an avalanche incident as well as be prepared for a worst case scenario.

Trip Preparation

Just like you put your seat belt on before driving out of your driveway, there are a few safety protocols you should consider doing every time before you head out to snowmobile. Make them a habit, even if you’re not going out into avalanche terrain. 

·        Call your local avalanche hotline or check the forecast online. What are the experts saying about the conditions? Avalanche centers are a clearinghouse of information.  Not only will they tell you about avalanche conditions, they report snow and riding conditions, weather forecasts and events. This should be one of your first steps before walking out the door.

·        Leave tracks. Tell someone where you are going and when they should expect you back. 

·        If you’re going to a new area, make sure you have the proper maps and understand the local travel restrictions. A great place to start is at the local snowmobile shop. 

·        Is everybody equipped with proper avalanche safety equipment? At a minimum, everyone in you group should carry a beacon, probe and a shovel. This is your life on the line. Not only should everyone carry the equipment, but also be practiced in using an avalanche beacon. Practicing does not and should not take very long. When you arrive at a trailhead, turn your beacon on and throw it into the snow and let your buddy find it. You want to intimately know how to use your rescue equipment before a real incident. Just like driving a standard transmission car … it takes a little practice to get the handle on learning the nuances of your avalanche beacon. 

·        Are you prepared for a mechanical breakdown? Do you have snowmobile towing capabilities? Is your first aid kit stocked? Do you have extra food and clothing in case of an unexpected overnight? 

Preparation is the key to any safe trip in the backcountry. By equipping yourself with knowledge and the necessary tools and equipment, you are prepared for any type of situation in the snow. You will also be stewards to groups who are less prepared than you in the field. I’ve carried all the avalanche, first aid, repair and extra clothing around some seasons without using anything. There has also been times that in one single backcountry tour that I’ve exhausted everything I’d had.

Gathering Information—From Home To The Trailhead

Now that everyone is prepared, what is the snow doing? How is the new snow bonding to the old snow surface? What is the possibility of an avalanche to occur? You can start gathering information as soon as you step out of your door in the morning. Does the snow slide off your railing very easy or does it stick? When you slam your truck door shut, does the snow fall off or does it stick? If snow is sliding of railings or falling off your truck or home’s roof, it is telling you that the new snow is not bonding very will with the surface below it. The following list includes other clues to gather while traveling to the trailhead.

·        Wind drifts on the road. If there is active drifting, you can expect leeward sides of slopes and ridges to be increasing wind pillows and drifts. Avalanches and cornices are easier to propagate during or just after a storm. 

·        Total snow. If 8 inches of snow has fallen over the past 24 hours there is some cause for concern. If 12 inches of snow has fallen in 24 hours, this is a red flag and the chance of avalanche formation has increased. 

·        Temperature. Is it getting really hot quick? This is when wet avalanches occur. A severe drop in temperature is something to monitor as well. 

·        Snow in treetops. If six inches of snow fell overnight and the trees are bare, you can assume that the wind was strong. Where did all the snow go? 

·        New cornice formation or recent avalanches on road cuts. If cornices are forming and avalanches releasing on small road cuts, big slopes in the higher elevations will definitely be forming cornices and have the potential for avalanches. 

On The Trail/In The Field

If the wind is howling, there has been 12 inches of snow since the night before and you can’t see when you arrive at the trailhead, it’s a no-brainer. Maybe it would be better to stick to the trails than the steeps.

What if it’s a crisp blue bird powder day? These days are usually the toughest to decipher the avalanche danger. The air is calm, it’s beautiful out and you and your friends are about to go snowmobiling. Yee-haw. You have been waiting two weeks for this powder day. Hold on to your helmets folks. Avalanches are silent killers. Snowy slopes look safe and unassuming until the rug is pulled from underneath you. There are no signs, which warn you of “road work ahead” or the sound of a Class V rapid to tell you that danger is approaching. What you need to stay safe in this seemingly benign, dangerless landscape is safe travel techniques. These safe travel techniques should always be implemented, even when avalanche forecasters are calling for low avalanche danger. Avalanches surprise even the experts. It only takes one avalanche to potentially ruin your day and theses safe travel techniques should always be used.

·        Travel one at a time when in avalanche terrain. Only one person at a time on a slope, period. Everyone who is not highmarking should be watching the one who is.  What if he gets stuck? Remember, they got stuck, not you. You should expose the least amount of people to a potential avalanche as possible. In theory, you should allow the stuck rider to dig himself out. If someone does go to help, give the stuck rider five to ten minutes to figure it out on his own. This is increasing the amount of potential victims if an avalanche does break—expose the least amount possible.

·        Before going to highmark the large avalanche prone slopes, start on small test slopes, which have similar slope angles and aspects. Using these smaller slopes, with fewer consequences could glean information about stability. If a small slope avalanches, those larger ones are suspect.

·        While waiting your turn to highmark, stay out of the run-out zone of the avalanche path. Park off to the side or at the bottom, where avalanches historically don’t run.  Do not park on high benches that avalanches can over run. Always watch the person who is highmarking.

Riding in avalanche terrain can be a fun, exciting experience. Understanding the avalanche phenomena takes years of experience. Glory of a highmark is not worth your life.

The No. 1 goal of your snowmobile tour is to return home to your family. Tomorrow’s another day. Stay safe and I’ll see you at a basic avalanche awareness class.

For more information, log on to www.avalanche.org. There is lots of information, including local avalanche centers, on the site.

About The Author

Forgensi is an avalanche forecaster in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in central Utah. He started as an avalanche forecaster for the forest in the winter of 2003-04. In the summer he works as a wildland firefighter.

He tells us his love for winter during the blizzard of 1978 when his dad built him his first snow cave in western New York.

Forgensi said, “Any way to get around on snow and ice is good.”

He can be reached at (435) 636-3363.








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