Avalanche Awareness 101

September 2019 Feature

At the annual snowmobile photo shoots last February in West Yellowstone, MT, we were able to attend an avalanche seminar presented by Mike Duffy, a certified instructor for the American Avalanche Association who has taught avalanche safety for 22 years.

He is also the owner of Avalanche1.com.

Duffy presented an avalanche of information (sorry, bad pun) during his presentation in West Yellowstone and we tried to pick out some highlights that would be helpful for the upcoming winter.

First some stats. These come from the winter of 2017-18.

  • 18 percent of snowmobilers killed had no avalanche gear.
  • 36 percent did not have a transceiver or did not have a transceiver turned on or functioning batteries.
  • 50 percent had multiple riders on the slope/runout.
  • 64 percent of the victims had airbags.
  • 43 percent of those victims did not deploy their airbags.
  • 57 percent of those victims died from trauma.
  • 3 of the 4 who deployed died from trauma.


How to be more effective with airbags.

  1. Check the airbag pack every time you ride. Trigger handle is out. Practice reaching for it.
  2. Use the leg strap.
  3. Consider the consequences.
  4. Get advanced training.
  5. Realize the airbag cannot save you in every situation.

These stats came from the U.S. in the winter of 2018-19 through Feb. 20, 2019.

  • 16 total avalanche fatalities
  • 7 were snowmobilers (44 percent)
  • 4 of 7 had no transceiver (57 percent)
  • 2 of 7 partners were not proficient in rescue (29 percent). Victims had transceivers.

Duffy also offered his 10 tips on avalanche safety.

  1. Persistent weak layers mean you have to back off, even when the danger is moderate. That’s because the layers have very inconsistent stability and are unpredictable and thus account for 50 percent of avalanche fatalities.
  2. Your history in the area doesn’t matter. No two winters are the same.
  3. It’s difficult to escape most avalanches.
  4. Rescue skills and group size are crucial.
  5. Airbags work. The rider still must deploy the airbag and avoid terrain traps.
  6. You need to identify the type of avalanche problems and know if it’s manageable.

9 Avalanche Types

- Loose wet snow

- Loose dry snow

- Storm slabs

- Wind slabs

- Cornice fall

- Glide avalanche

- Wet slab

- Deep slabs

- Persistent slabs

7. Avalanches are the problem; terrain selection is the solution.

8. We are recreationists who need to act like professionals.

“Implement and follow best practices. ‘Winging it’ is for amateurs.” – Mike Duffy

9. Analyze consequences.

10. Check your gear every ride.

Transceiver check

- On/battery strength

- All to search

- One to transmit. Check range, then practice coming in and past the transceiver.

- Everyone back to transmit.

- The person transmitting for range check goes down the trail, switches to search and checks to see if everyone is transmitting as they drive by. The rider then goes back to transmit.


5 Signs Of Instability

Remember that persistent weak layers may show no signs and they are responsible for most fatalities. Check the forecast. U.S. www.avalanche.org or Canada www.avalanche.ca.

APP – “Avalanche Forecasts”

  1. Significant snowfall or rain
  2. Recent avalanches
  3. Rapid warming
  4. Wind
  5. Collapsing or cracking

5 Guidelines For Backcountry Riding

1. Only one at a time on the hill.

2. Never go above your partner. Get out of the way if you are below.

3. Have a plan and communicate it, i.e., who is first, who is last, where you’re stopping, escape routes and island of safety.

4. Stay in voice or visual contact. Buddy system.

5. Alter your riding according to the danger.

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