Behind the ecstasy of backcountry riding lurks a monster known as avalanche danger.Devious and ephemeral, the threat of avalanche constantly waxes and wanes depending on snowfall, weatherpatterns, and temperatures, resisting to be fully understood. To the unskilled and uneducated backcountryrider, this beast remains almost completely invisible. It might be waiting just below the next rollover, and yetthe inexperienced rider obliviously arcs right into the jaws of near-certain catastrophe. In stark contrast,riders who’ve taken the time to build their avalanche senses easily perceive the danger, or at least the generalprobability of it.
They recognize the wind slab, know how well it’s bonded, when and how it was formed, ifpotentially weak layers lie deeper in the snowpack, and what kind of bed surface the avy has to run on. Insum, they have a decent sense of the chances an avalanche will be triggered, and its potential size anddestructiveness. This is before even digging a snowpit to truly test the slope’s stability. The ExperiencedRider Let’s hang out with an avy-savvy rider and see exactly what steps he suggests you take beforedropping in. First, dig a snowpit and conduct stability tests for the slope in question. If the pit and stabilitytests are conclusive and the threat of avalanche seems high, back off the line. Use proven routefindingtechniques to find a safer way down.
There’s always a safer way down: think ridgeline, think wind-scouredas opposed to wind-loaded, frozen as opposed to slushy, anchored as opposed to open. If you’re morecomfortable with the stability, you may test it further by dropping a chunk of snow down the suspect slope tosee if a slide is triggered. Next, you may want to employ a slope cut, a single turn across the slope to a safeisland that will give you a much better idea how stable the run is. If it seems dangerous you might want torope up before trying the cut. Finally, if you’re committed to riding down a slope with a wind slab, even if itsstability is questionable, transfer as little force as possible into it once you’re below the slab’s tension point(where it would release if triggered). Don’t make aggressive edge sets or jump turns. Stand lightly on yourfeet, maybe even point it.
Scrubbing your speed by turning or setting an edge may produce the extra force ittakes to trigger a release. If the terrain below is too bony to ride at speed, that may be a good reason for youto back off that line and find a safer way down. Higher Learning Before you even find yourself in asituation like the one above, it’s absolutely necessary to get educated and gain experience. So how do youaccomplish this? Not simply by reading this article, that’s for damn sure. Hopefully we’ve made you aware ofthe potential danger and motivated you to take the right steps. Begin by getting a quality avalanche text.Don’t just read it, learn it. If you flunk the final exam, you don’t get an “F,” you get zipped into a body bag.
The next step is to get equipped with the necessary tools: a beacon, shovel, and probes. It’s imperative towear a transmitting beacon every time you enter the backcountry-this goes for everyone you’re riding with. Ifyou and your buddies are wearing beacons and know how to use them when an avalanche strikes, thechances of uncovering live victims is greatly increased. Once equipped, enroll in a series of avalanchecourses. This is where you put it all together. You’ll learn how to dig snowpits, read the layers of thesnowpack, and determine the best course of action. You’ll learn about routefinding and safe backcountrytravel. You’ll get training in using your beacon and how to conduct a search for avalanche victims. Now thatyou know what to look for, diligently follow the storm-by-storm evolution of the snow pack in the area youplan to ride. One of the most effective tools for developing avy senses is a daily phone call to an avalanchereport.
You can learn even more by going out and seeing first-hhand the conditions and transformationsdiscussed in the report-sort of a lecture-lab combination. Assorted Avalanches Finally, let’s look at thebasic types of avalanches and the main factors associated with them. The most deadly is the slab avalanche,which can be classified as hard or soft depending on the denseness of the slab. Prevailing winds push loosepowder snow to form wind slabs on the lee (sheltered) slopes of mountains. Wind slabs look like big pillowsor drifts. When combined with a dangerously weak layer in the snowpack, wind slabs tend to crack andsettle, making a characteristic whoomph! noise. When enough pressure builds (like the weight of aninexperienced snowboarder or skier riding through, for example), wind slabs will release. Loose-snowsloughs, while generally not as deadly as slab avalanches, can be dangerous nonetheless. Dry-snow sloughscan get big and fast on a large, steep slope. If they push you off a cliff or bury you in a terrain trap, like a tightgully, you’re in trouble.
They’re associated with cold temperatures and dry powder that lacks cohesion. Wetsloughs, associated with above-freezing temperatures or direct sun, can pack a lot more destructive forceand really pound a person. Backcountry riding can be a safe and worry-free activity as long as you’re welleducated and play by the rules. And when you consider the quality of riding to be had, the required time andeffort becomes a small investment with immense returns. Kern Barta’s avalanche training started when hewas a kid in the mid 70s, thanks to his ski-instructor parents. He began venturing into thebackcountry in 1986 and started guiding others in the early 90s. He usually racks up about 150backcountry days a year, mostly in Utah’s Wasatch Range.