Avalanches can strike at any moment, but knowing what to look out for can increase your odds of avoiding a swirling mass of snow. Learn how with these avalanche awareness tips.
When on the hills in winter you need to constantly make decisions, some of which will relate to avalanche conditions. The first step is to realize that avalanches can take place against a novice winter explore or an experienced one. Incredibly quick once they get going, avalanches will take out anything in its path, which is why it’s important to know what to look out for so you can avoid getting caught up in one when on the hills this winter.
There are three crucial factors that need to be considered: before your ascent, the approach, and during your ascent. There are also three physical factors and one human factor that need to be considered as well. The physical factors are terrain, weather and any weaknesses in the snowpack. The human factor relates to the fact that humans will often trigger an avalanche that hits them, which is why you need to be aware of what you and others are doing around you.
Before Your Ascent
Before blindly going off on the hills, you should think about:
Terrain – Look at maps and guidebooks to check the route you intend to do. Pay particular attention to the angle of the slopes (30-45 degrees are avalanche prone), altitudes, any avalanche blackspots and any avalanche history, avoiding recent avalanche areas.
Weather – Take advantage of mountain forecasts to check the weather conditions for the previous week. Has there been any wind and heavy snowfall? Watch out for the amount of new snow or wind loading on leeward slopes. What have the temperatures been? Have they fluctuated or has the weather been cold and clear? Fluctuating temperatures could weaken the snowpack stability producing a greater risk of an avalanche.
Snowpack – Find out about the deepest snow deposits from avalanche information services. Have any weak layers within the snowpack been highlighted? Has windslab formed? Is the snowpack vulnerable due to a rise and fall in temperatures?
People – How many people are with you? What is their level of experience, weight and fitness? What equipment are they carrying with them?
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When approaching the hills, keep an eye out for the following:
Terrain – Keep an eye out for the three A’s: angles, aspects and altitude. Angles between 30-45 degrees are more susceptible to avalanches. If you find these types of angles can they be avoided? Does strong sunlight and wind affect your aspects? Is there a lot of snow at altitude, which could trigger an avalanche? Are there any shooting cracks in the snow, which indicates fracturing? What about exposed traverses above slopes? Can you see any ridges that would be easy to follow?
Weather – What are the conditions like? Are there clear views? Is it warm or cold? Is it raining or snowing? What are the winds like at altitude? Are they shifting the snow around? Is the sunlight an issue and is it warming the snow up?
Snowpack – How does the snow feel? Are there any whumping noises? This is the sound of collapsing weak buried layer of snow, which could also be the layer of snow that breaks away and releases a slab of snow. Are there any cracks underfoot?
People – Check the fitness of the group and their awareness of conditions. Check your avalanche safety equipment. Are there any other people not part of your group who are loading the snowpack? Be ready to react to any events.
During Your Ascent
Should you stay or should you go?
Terrain – Now you should be assessing your immediate surroundings to determine any snow-laden areas. What are the angles like and can you avoid any 30-45 degree avalanche-prone ones? If an avalanche does strike, think about where it would take you. Into rocks, into hollows, or over cliffs?
Weather – Has the weather changed much? What’s your visibility like? Is the temperature rising or decreasing? Are the winds shifting the snow? Is the sunlight affecting your area or the slopes?
Snowpack – Think where the snowpack would break when footsteps dent it. Recent avalanche activity or debris on slopes will be a big indicator as to the stability of the snow.
People – Now that you have the most information on-hand that you need, will you still be able to make informed decisions when the time calls for it or will ambition cloud the group’s judgement?
Despite maximum planning to avoid avalanches, there may come a time when you find yourself in a high avalanche area. However, by taking the necessary precautions, being flexible in your approach and staying aware of the weather conditions you can still enjoy your winter activities in the snow.