Whilst for some people there is no greater thrill than climbing up a snow-clad mountain or hurtling down it on skis or a snowboard for that matter, it’s important that you pay great attention to the possibility of avalanches.
Whilst there are several techniques to adopt which may give you a better chance of survival in the event that you are caught up in an avalanche, having some prior knowledge about avalanches and gaining an insight into spotting the telltale signs that signify that there is a real danger of an imminent avalanche being about to occur is better than having to try to cope if you are caught up in one.
Many people die every year as a result of avalanches but, as with all survival-type situations, prevention, awareness and avoiding the dangers is far better than having to cope with the real life or death scenario that an avalanche can present.
Take an Avalanche Awareness Course
If you spend a lot of time on mountains, especially where there is a lot of snow, you should enrol on an avalanche awareness and survival safety course which is tailored to your chosen activity.
Pay Attention to Weather Forecasts
In addition to providing a general weather forecast, most mountainous regions which attract people to the slopes to participate in some kind of adventure sport activity such as climbing, skiing or snowboarding will also incorporate an avalanche forecast into their weather updates. If an avalanche advisory is in effect, you should pay attention to it and keep away from a particular area or re-route accordingly.
How To Recognise The Signs Yourself
The most obvious way to avoid an avalanche area is to identify slopes where there is evidence that recent avalanches have occurred. This would indicate that the conditions are right for further avalanches to follow.
Also, take extra care following heavy rain or heavy snowfall as 95% of avalanches occur within 24 hours of extreme rain or snow. High winds too in combination increase the risk even further.
It’s also important to watch out for unusually warmer days where the temperatures might uncharacteristically rise above freezing following a much colder spell. Where snow cracks or collapses when you step on it that’s a real danger sign that the conditions are right for an avalanche.
Testing The Snow
If there’s a particularly steep slope you’re looking to step onto, try to find a much smaller slope nearby which is more or less at a similar angle to the larger one. If the smaller slope gives way underfoot, then you should avoid the larger one as that’s most likely to do the same. There are several tests you can carry out on the smaller slope to try to gain an indication of avalanche from digging a test pit to stomping on the snow.
Picking Your Spot
If you have no option but to traverse a particular slope, which you feel might pose a threat, always try to do it at the top or bottom of the slope where possible and never in the middle. If you cross near the top, any sudden avalanche will not have had the opportunity to build up the kind of momentum it would halfway down and if you choose a path at the bottom, it will give you more time to get out of the way.
Always stick to ridgelines, staying close to the edge and traverse vertically, either up or down, but don’t zigzag across the slope or travel up the middle. Before even doing this however, take a bit of time to evaluate your environment and try to visualise an escape route which might be a group of trees or some rocky outcrop both of which might provide you with buffer from a sudden avalanche, although this is no guarantee of safety.
Understanding The Terrain
If you’re in the UK, USA or any other part of the Northern Hemisphere, north facing slopes are the most prone to avalanche in the depths of winter whilst south facing ones are more treacherous in sunny, warmer weather, particularly when it gets to Spring. In the Southern Hemisphere, this model is reversed. Concave slopes tend to be generally safer than convex ones and traversing over cornices or even right below them is never a good idea.
Finally, if you’re in a group and you have no option but to traverse across a particularly high-risk slope, make sure that only one person crosses at a time, whilst the rest of the party keeps an eye out for them and on the conditions above. The more footfall at the same time on a slope can trigger off an avalanche and if you all get caught up in it, not only are more lives being put in danger but you’ll potentially lose the capacity for at least one of the party to raise the alarm.