Avalanche education series
You’ve probably heard it: “Avalanches are the problem; terrain selection is the solution.” So, on the high danger days, you stay off the 30- to 45-degree big open slopes. That’s how many riders manage the avalanche danger rating.
It’s incorrect to base where you ride solely on the danger rating. What’s more important is to understand what type of avalanche you’re dealing with and how you should manage each of the nine avalanche problems. or types.
Some types of avalanches are inherently more dangerous and unpredictable than others. The danger rating may have dropped to moderate, since the avalanches are harder to trigger, but if you do trigger one, it can still be large and deadly. Moderate danger does not mean moderate-sized avalanches.
Why does this matter?
Certain avalanche problems are responsible for the most motorized avalanche fatalities in the North America. If you understand the avalanche problems, you know when to avoid certain terrain.
There were eight snowmobile avalanche fatalities during the winter of 2018-2019. Here are the facts:
- 100 percent triggered by riders in the group.
- 63 percent of the victims dug out by people outside the riding group.
- 100 percent of the fatal avalanches failed on a persistent weak layer.
- And almost if not all the victims lacked advanced on-snow training.
What does this tell us?
I’ve been studying the accidents for years and persistent weak layers within the snow pack are responsible for the majority of avalanche fatalities. If you know what they are and how to ride accordingly, it makes a huge difference in not getting caught. This is where the advanced on-snow training makes a difference.
During the last few years, most of the victims had very outdated training or no on-snow training. A better understanding of the snow goes a long way in picking the right terrain. It’s sad to see so many people losing their lives with persistent weak layers.
Educated riders who implement what they have learned know this is the time to back off and not test their fate to unpredictable layers of snow. There’s never a day I stay home due to the danger, but every day I go, where I go is determined by the type of avalanche problem(s) present on that day. With this sport you must be disciplined and patient—disciplined to get the knowledge and information to make good decisions and patient to wait until conditions are right for higher consequence terrain.
Who you ride with is essential. Are they an asset or a liability if something goes wrong? In classes, most people think they know how to use a transceiver and can rescue effectively. In reality, it takes quite a bit of practice and coaching to be proficient. You don’t get a practice run in a real rescue.
Do your riding partners have the knowledge to pick the right terrain for the avalanche conditions or are they relying on luck?