Avalanche Risk Identification and Safety Tips

Taking note of snow condition reports and recognizing warning signs can go a long way to avoiding being caught in an avalanche. Significant amounts of rain or snowfall can cause the snowpack to become unstable with avalanches frequently happening on the first sunny day following a storm.

Warmer temperatures can result in less stable snowpack as the snow moves down, pulled by gravity. Experts advise snow skiers to listen to the snow, particularly when enjoying a back-country snow sport adventure. Cracking or ‘whumpfing’ sounds are a warning of unstable snowpack, as are hollow bass-drum sounds when traveling over hard snow.

Avalanches most often occur on slopes between 35 and 50 degrees, but are a possibility on any slope steeper than 30 degrees. Skiers should be aware though, that even if the area they are skiing is less than 30 degrees, if there are steeper slopes higher up, there is still the possibility of an avalanche. Common trigger points are along ridge crests where wind-driven snow has collected, near rocky outcrops in the snowpack and areas where there is mid-slope steepening. Cornices in the snow indicate the prevailing direction of the wind and could serve as a sign that the slope below consists of wind-loaded snow. Whether the slope faces the sun or is in the shade is also significant, and skiers should make use of a compass to determine the direction the slope is facing. Some ski areas are known as avalanche zones and even if there are no outward signs, there may be persistent weak layers, and skiers should consult the local avalanche advisory authorities for information relevant to the area.

In the interests of safety, never ski alone and ensure that all members of the group watch out for one another. Preferably ski one one the slope at a time, but if this is not possible, keep well spread out and never descend directly above your ski partner. Bear in mind that an avalanche beacon is invaluable in search and rescue operations.

If an avalanche is heading your way try to ski to the side of the sliding snow, and when it reaches you discard your skis and poles. Grab onto the downhill side of trees if you have the opportunity to do so, or roll onto your back with your feet facing downhill. When you feel the avalanche slowing, try to make airspace around your mouth. If you are completely buried, you will have to rely on rescuers to find you, so try to remain calm until they do.

If your partner is caught in an avalanche there will be no time to go for help, so while watching the victim to establish a last seen point, try to alert others to the emergency situation. While your first instinct may be to rush to your partner’s aid, it’s important to determine whether you will be safe to do so. Look for discarded equipment and/or clothing indicating a possible location. If the victim is wearing a beacon, conduct a beacon search, probing before digging. If there is no beacon to track, probe around the areas where surface clues were found, as well as in possible catchment areas. Keep looking until you find the victim, whose life is in your hands.

Avalanche and first aid training should be a top priority for all back-country skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, hikers, mountaineers and any other adventurers who may be heading into snow-laden territory. Being prepared for emergencies will allow snowsport enthusiasts to enjoy their chosen activity with greater peace of mind.