There’s a lot of discussion about what do to do if you’re involved in an avalanche. But the advice about what to do if you’re in an avalanche really misses the point. Avoiding an avalance is the best way of surviving an avalanche.
Avalanche avoidance can be boiled down to making good decisions based on available information. It borders on the mathematical. Here are seven tips to maximize your experience and minimize your risks in avalanche terrain this winter.
1. Check the local avalanche center report. In the Seattle area we rely heavily on Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (www.nwac.us). It’s basically a "point and shoot" option for determining whether risks are acceptable at various elevations. These risks are expressed based on slope elevation and aspect. An avalanche danger rose from January 13, 2011 appears to the right:
2. Get an altimeter and compass. It’s impossible to utilize the information from your local avalanche center without them. Suunto makes a number of good watches that have both internal compasses and altimeters. Like with any technology it’s important to learn how to use it.
3. Get maps showing the area you’re skiing. Like the altimeter and compass, a good map is essential to planning your route and regulating risk. A number of providers offer good topographical maps. Check with guides in your area to see which maps provide the best coverage (and are the most updated).
4. Practice, practice, practice. Avalanche classes are only the very first step. Learn how to use your equipment. Apply what you learned in class on the mountain.
5. Always ski with a transceiver, shovel and probe. Turning on the transceiver is a good reminder that that avalanche hazards are very real every time we ski–particularly on slopes between 35 and 45 degrees.
6. Ski one at a time. Give yourself plenty of time. Have an escape route planned in case a slide starts. Get out of the way at the bottom of the slope.
7. Know your ski partners. Do they have different levels of risk aversion than you? Do they have different goals? Are they visceral or intellectual? There’s been a lot written about the risk matrix (severity of consequences on one axis and likelihood of consequences on the other). Making decisions based on emotion rather objective data leads to bad results.
Avalanche science is complicated. Avalanche forecasting involves a lot of variables. It’s helpful to learn as much as possible and have as many facts as possible when making risk versus reward decisions. But you don’t have to become a snow scientist to minimize risk and maximize the skiing experience. Common sense coupled with basic information will help keep you safe this winter.
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