Avalanche Awareness Tips with AMGA Ski Guide Nick D’Alessio
You and your buddies are flying down a perfect slope, weaving in and out of each other’s tracks, genuinely enjoying the amazing snow and scenery. Suddenly, that same amazing snow gives way completely, taking you and your buddies with it as it careens downhill. You struggle to stay afloat, but the weight of the snow forces you under and covers you completely.
How do you possibly survive a deadly avalanche? By avoiding it altogether. Taking the right precautions and completing your due diligence before heading out can significantly improve your chances of completely avoiding an avalanche, and therefore, surviving one.
We interviewed American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) Certified Ski Guide Nick D’Alessio, owner of Alaska-based outfits Remarkable Adventures and Alaska Guide Collective. We discovered exactly how he prepares for and executes a day in avalanche terrain. From the planning stages all the way to the car ride home, use this guide in conjunction with a certified avalanche safety course to help you avoid an avalanche all together:
Pre-Trip Avalanche Preparation Tips
Before heading out into the backcountry, there are plenty of things you need to do to prepare yourself. First, you need to make sure you have all of the essentials needed for a day in the backcountry. Next, you’ll need at least basic knowledge of mountain terrain, specifically how to spot avalanche trouble areas.
How to read avalanche terrain
These trouble areas, known as avalanche terrain, consist of:
- any slope 30 degrees or steeper
- any area within the runout zone of an avalanche.
For reference, a slope measuring 30 degrees or more would generally be considered an upper intermediate to advanced run at a resort.
Who should you bring along?
The next thing you’ll want to think about is the skill level of the group. You’ll want to keep this in mind when deciding what routes to take and what slopes to hit. Matching terrain up with a riders skill level will help to reduce overall risk while out in unpredictable terrain.
Check snowpack conditions before heading out
Next, you need to have an up-to-date weather forecast and know the condition of the snowpack in the area you are trying to get to. The weather forecast allows you to determine the best day to head out by detailing necessary information like wind speeds, temperature, and precipitation. All of which can have a significant impact on the stability of the snowpack.
What is the snowpack?
The snowpack is snow that’s been compressed by its own weight while on the ground. It consists of different layers that can vary in density and stability based on many factors. An avalanche occurs when a layer of unstable snow within the snowpack is compromised, causing the layer on top to break free and slide down the slope. It is imperative to look at the avalanche advisories (danger ratings of the terrain and the avalanche problems for the day put out by forecasting centers) for the area you are thinking about before making a concrete decision on the location.
Closely monitor avalanche forecasts and warnings
These avalanche warnings, however, are only forecasts. Mountain conditions can be quite unpredictable and certain circumstances like precipitation, temperature increases, or wind can cause changes in the snowpack that are not reflected in the forecast. These changes often lead to a more unstable snowpack without a change to the advisory. New research into avalanche accidents by the Utah Avalanche Center found just under half of all avalanche deaths occur when conditions are reported as “considerable.” This statistic shows just how important it is to verify the avalanche forecast is correct by completing your own research both at home and on location. As Nick says, “Considerable danger is the real deal!”
Map out a preliminary plan
With the information you have so far, begin to visualize in your mind the places you want to go to get a baseline plan laid out. Think about where you will park, the slopes you think would be best to hit, and the routes you will take to get to the top of them. Refrain from making any concrete decisions at this point, though. Nick says “I never would make a decision on truly where I’m going to go until that morning. It’s amazing how conditions can change overnight.”
Assess avalanche conditions for the trip
Finally, the morning of, have a meeting at someone’s house or a coffee shop without leaving until 80% of the day’s decisions have been made. You and your group should go through every step of the game plan, look over maps, and determine if the snow conditions have changed. Look to see if the area you want to try out was hit by a storm the night before and check for these warning signs:
- Heavy Precipitation: an inch of snow per hour or 12 inches within 24 to 48 hours before heading out
- Wind Loading: Heavy deposits of snow caused by strong winds. Wind can deposit snow 10 times faster than actual snowfall from storms, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
If either of these has occurred in the zone you plan to go to, you’ll need to keep your terrain choices away from avalanche terrain or move on to plan B.
Preparing for Avalanche Danger
Now that you and your group have a plan and location locked down, leave a note for a loved one or roommate with the location and time you expect to be back, then head out. Unlike the commute to your favorite resort, the activities taking place in the car aren’t all about passing the time. During the drive, you and your group need to be scanning the terrain for avalanche warning signs and red flags.
How to spot avalanche danger signs
The two primary red flags to look for from the car are:
- Recent Avalanche: The presence of a recent avalanche means the snow throughout that entire area could be unstable and waiting for the right moment to let go.
- Wind Loading: defined above
Once you park the car, make sure to do another scan of the terrain for signs of a recent avalanche, rapid thaw, or wind texture in the snow. Wind texture in the snow is a sign that wind loading may have occurred in that area. Then, everyone in the group needs to make sure they have the necessary backcountry essentials, including a beacon, shovel, and probe. Everyone must then test their beacons to make sure they can transmit and receive a signal. For the most effective beacon check, use Nick’s D’BEAST method.
Once all of that is complete and no warning signs have yet to be seen, your group is ready to head out towards the slope. However, there are still a couple more warning signs of an avalanche to be on the lookout for during your trek along the trail:
- Whumpfs: Listen for whumpf-like noises as you trudge through the snow. These noises are the sound of an unstable layer in the snowpack collapsing under your weight.
- Shooting Cracks: These are cracks in the snowpack radiating away from a source of weight like your feet or snowmobile.
- Rapid Thaw Occurring: Rapid thawing of the snowpack causes that snow to weaken and can be detected through warning signs like noticeably warm temperatures and large amounts of snowmelt.
Both whumpf’s and shooting cracks would result in an avalanche if they occurred on a steep enough slope. The best way to keep an eye on both of these is to do traveling tests of the snow. These traveling tests can be as simple as sticking your ski pole deep into the snow and feeling for different densities in the snow as you change in elevation.
Carefully Ascending Avalanche Terrain
As you and your group begin the ascent towards your objective, there are some real-time decisions you can make before your trek that will save you precious daylight and energy. For instance, it’s important to stick to the easiest terrain possible. The easiest terrain, being both the safest and least steep, will not only keep you out of danger, but also save you energy. “If you save energy on the way up, that means you can ski more,” says Nick. You’ll also want to do your best to avoid trekking in or crossing through avalanche terrain even when the snowpack is stable.
How to safely navigate avalanche terrain
When crossing avalanche terrain is unavoidable, make sure each member of the group crosses one at a time. This should take place even when crossing the runout zone of avalanche terrain because the snowpack is connected throughout the slope and a disturbance in one area could mean an avalanche in another. You may have done all of your homework and might be able to say with almost complete certainty that that particular slope will not give way, but don’t leave it to chance. One buried person and three free people to dig him out are much better than the other way around.
Next, after you have picked the easiest route to your objective, you and your group need to look for terrain traps to avoid on the way down. Terrain traps are any terrain aspects that worsen the effects of an avalanche, such as a river valley, an avalanche path ending in trees, or a cliff. Every person in the group should know the location of each terrain trap and avoid them at all costs.
From the moment you begin your ascent to the moment you get to the summit, everyone in the group should be in constant communication with each other. Whether it’s by talking about the location of a terrain trap or a change in the weather, each member of the group should constantly be sharing information with the people around them. Nick says, “You need to make sure that everyone is on the same page because communication breakdown is one of the main causes of avalanche fatalities.”
Perform avalanche tests along the way
Lastly, at least one of the group members should be doing regular traveling tests of the snowpack, using a ski pole and the technique mentioned above to feel for different densities. This is important because the stability of the snowpack can change as you move up in elevation. Snow pit tests are another great way to test the snowpack, but you really need to take an avalanche safety course to fully understand what each layer of the snowpack is telling you.
Preparing to Drop In
Once you’ve reached the top of your ski objective, take some time to regroup with everyone. Review the locations of all the terrain traps and your plans for avoiding them as well as your overall plan for riding down the slope. Mainly, you’ll want to discuss the safe points along the run, out of reach of an avalanche, where the group can meet up as each rider makes their way down the slope or in the event an avalanche is triggered.
Now that all of the safe zones along the run have been chosen, the first rider is good to go. Exactly like when trekking across avalanche terrain, every rider should drop in one at a time just in case your evaluation of the snowpack was wrong. The first rider will ski down to the first safe zone, making sure to wait for the rest of the group before moving on. This process will continue throughout the run until everyone has safely made it to the base of the slope. Feel free to head back up and do it all over again if time permits.
If you’re at the end of your day, don’t let the post-run blues keep you from being vigilant during your trek back to the car. This unpredictable terrain requires your attention at all times of the day, no matter your energy level. You’ll be able to relax at the car, so keep your guard up until you get there.
Continue to Build Your Backcountry Avalanche Awareness
During the drive home, take this time to debrief with your group. Talk about the mistakes that were made and discuss how each person could have done better. Maybe it’s practicing search and rescue skills or improving at spotting unstable layers in the snowpack. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it will make you a better team member for your next trip.
When it comes down to it, avalanche safety is really all about avoidance. If an avalanche is never triggered, you never have to worry about your chances of surviving it. Using this guide in conjunction with the strategies learned from a certified avalanche safety course will help give you the necessary tools to avoid an avalanche completely and keep coming back for more fun in the mountains. Read through our Backcountry Essentials article for more info on what to bring and check out our latest ski wear and outdoor clothing for the best in Core Construction Technology.