The Top 12 Avalanche Safety Tips from my AIARE Level 1

Avalanche safety is forefront on our minds in Tahoe with this season’s uncharacteristically weak and shallow snowpack and friends’ lives lost and endangered. I was lucky to be one of the Squaw Valley Avalanche Education Fund’s 2012 scholarship recipients and get a full ride to an AIARE Level 1 avalanche course at Expedition Kirkwood last weekend. Here are the top 12 things I learned during the course, or at least the ones I wrote down. I learned so much!

I highly recommend getting AIARE certified, and I can’t speak highly enough about Expedition Kirkwood and our instructor Geoff Clarke. While you’ll notice my list has a lot of “don’ts,” Geoff was very positive about the sport and the inherent dangers. We ski because it’s fun to push the limits. His course was all about knowledge. Know when and where it’s ok to push it, then go for it. There are just certain aspects on certain days that you must be aware of. AIARE Level 1 is a great place to start. Kirkwood is a great mountain to do it at since it’s a Class A avalanche resort, with loads of terrain that your AIARE guide can tour you through so you can see avalanche-prone terrain first hand.

Some stats to get you thinking: 90% of avalanche accidents are attributed to human factors traps. 95% of skiers who’ve gotten caught knew there was avi danger that day.

1)   Here in California (Maritime climate, prone to more loose snow avalanches), many of us assume that trees are safe zones, but when you’re dealing with slab avalanche conditions (deeper snowpack instability more common in Inner Mountain and Continental climates), trees are not your friends. They instead can act as trigger points for a slab, and hazards if you get caught.

2)   That said, know the primary avalanches concerns for every day you ski backcountry, and act/plan accordingly. Don’t plan to ski a peak a week earlier and not have an alternate. Always scout out your safe zones/escape routes before you drop in.

3)   Watch for wind-loading. Wind can turn 1 foot of snowfall into 10 feet of wind deposit, creating hazardous conditions even when it hasn’t snowed recently. NOAA has remote mountaintop sensor data to show you peak conditions.

4)   30- to 40-degree slopes are the most prone to slide, with 38-degree slopes (equivalent to a resort’s double-black diamond in steepness) being the magic number. Above 40 degrees, slopes usually self regulate. Below 30 degrees you can still get in slow, wet slides or be poised in the run-out of a slide path or a concave terrain feature that can trap you.

5)   Beware of false senses of security: seeing tracks down a slope, a well-set skin track. Even though many people may have gone before you, it doesn’t equal safety. They may not have hit the slab’s trigger, or wind loading that day could create a dangerous zone above the skin track.

6)   Don’t ski like you’re in a resort: convex rolls and gullies are very unsafe in the backcountry.

7)   Keep your phone off or on airplane mode. Cell phones interfere with transceivers.

8)   See the avalanche path, not just the ski run. A wide-open run in the backcountry is often wide open for a reason. Look for flagging (the uphill side of trees with broken or missing branches) and snow deposits at tree bases, which indicate avalanche activity.

9)   Ask questions; communicate with everyone in your group. You need a leader, but never give anyone “a halo” of authority; trust your instincts and own knowledge.

10)  Learn to ski in all conditions—it all exists in the backcountry.

11)   Know your transceiver, and practice, practice, practice with it. Recalibrate your transceiver every 5 years, or buy a new one. Take the batteries out after each season to prevent corrosion, and insert new ones at the start of each season.

12)  Know when to say no. Turning around if needed and making other safe decisions that may not be as fun in your mind is just part of the backcountry experience. Mental discipline can save your life.

For more avalanche safety advice, stay tuned to the TMS blog. I plan to write a few more avalanche safety posts from my AIARE training, including what to do if you’re caught in an avalanche. I also want to plug a piece, “A Winter in Avalanche Country,” I wrote for Moonshine Ink’s April 2012 edition on backcountry and avalanche safety trends. We’re seeing more people in the backcountry, more gear sales, and more avalanche safety course enrollment in Tahoe. Interesting trends to follow…

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