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Avalanche Safety

By Miranda Yeary - December 18th, 2002

A dry slab of snow can reach speeds of up to 60-80 mph within 5 seconds of breaking free. You cannot outrun an avalanche, but by being conscientious you can lower your risk of experiencing an avalanche altogether.

Know Where
According to the American Association of Avalanche Professionals most avalanches occur on inclines between 35 and 45 degrees. However, that is exactly the incline that most of us enjoy snowboarding. The majority of black diamond runs on ski resorts are around 35 degrees. It is very rare for anything with less than a 30-degree incline to slide. One backcountry tool to help determine the incline of a coveted slope is an "inclinometer." They are inexpensive and easy to use.

Know When
A very high percentage of avalanches occur within 24 hours of fresh snow. A good rule of thumb: if in doubt, let it settle out (for a day or two). Also keep in mind that rapidly changing snow (i.e., snow that has been rained on or that is melting) has a high likelihood of avalanche, as well.

Be Careful

  • Do not travel in the backcountry alone. Choose a knowledgeable and conservative companion with whom to hike.

  • Consult the avalanche forecast center near you for updates on snow conditions. They are updated once, maybe twice, daily.
  • Carry the proper equipment. The most essential pieces are the beacon and the shovel.
  • When you get to your prospective spot, assess the snow's integrity and make a plan of attack before beginning your ascent. Stay away from runs showing evidence of recent slides. Stay away from wind drifts, or pillows, of snow. Have a meeting point planned at the bottom.
  • While hiking, listen for "whoomping" or cracking noises underfoot and around you. If the snow sounds unstable, turn back.
  • When you are sure the snow is secure, have only one person riding the face at a time.
  • Do not stop at the bottom, in the run out zone. It is so tempting to stop and check out your line or your friend coming down, but you could be in danger if that friend starts a slide.
  • Take an avalanche safety course.

For a more extensive look at avalanche safety, check out this article from the La Sal Avalanche Forecast Center.


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