Sensationally called the White Dragon, the avalanche is a phenomenon to be respected by all mountain users. Sleeping beneath that pristine duvet of new snow, ready to pounce and thunder valley-ward reducing trees to matchsticks and burying the unwary meters beneath a solid icy tomb. A force of nature how to tame it? Or is it so unpredictable and so irreverent…..that it is simply impossible to tame?
A good story, but the reality is different
It certainly makes for a good story; the reality is, however, quite different. In over 90 percent of avalanche accidents, the avalanche is triggered by the victims. On rare occasions such as in Italy recently, an earthquake or some other significant force (not sound) can trigger an unstable snowpack to release. There are certain factors that if taken into account can make avalanche risk assessment more systematic and reproducible. After all, it IS about balancing risk. If I chose in mid-winter to ski only slopes less than 20 degrees in angle (and not exposed to run out from other steeper terrain) it is unlikely that I will be caught in an avalanche. Nor will I be ripping those epic powder turns of ski/snowboard movie fame because the slope really isn’t steep enough. Instead, I want to ski that slope over there in the shade, buried in a new meter of pow, at about 35-40 degrees with a wonderful convex roll where I can really lay the boards over: significantly higher risk and likely a life-ending decision.
To tame your beast or to make an informed risk assessment and a decision about where it is likely to be safe or unsafe is complex and requires the mountain user to be educated, prepared and systematic.
The following are a minimum:
- Be Educated: Do an Avalanche Awareness Course, access your local avalanche advisory website for online educational resources, talk to local mountain professionals. eg: http://www.avalanche.ca , http://www.avalanche.org , http://www.avalanche.net.nz , http://www.slf.ch
- Understand the local snowpack and weather
- Have a systematic approach to risk assessment
- Plan your route and have alternative routes in the event of unexpectedly finding “no go” terrain
- Know how to and practice regularly first response avalanche rescue skills and carry the tools do to so
- Know your group: strengths, weaknesses, limitations. Have a system for effective communication with group consultation.
- Take the time to stop and ask yourself: “Are these turns worth my life?”
If you have enjoyed this Blog post you can get more detailed information about avalanche triggers and avoiding them at our upcoming medical conference Medicine in the Mountains 2018.