20 to 40 people die in avalanches each year in North America.
90% of deaths are from slides triggered by the victim or members of the victim's group.
There is only a 30% chance of survival when buried by an avalanche.
However, there's good news. Avalanches aren't magic. If you know what to look for and what to avoid, you can drastically decrease your chances of getting caught. The following information is a sampling of the topics you’ll learn about in an avalanche course.
The Red Flags
Warming temperatures can cause snow creep and wet-slide avalanches. Wet slides can occur without a human trigger.
Windblown snow can overload leeward slopes even when it's not snowing.
Persistent Weak Layers
Weak layers deep in the snowpack can trigger a slide weeks after a storm, even when no other flags are present.
If you see recent avalanches, then more are likely. Find more information at avalanche.org.
Signs of Unstable Snow
Look for cracking or collapsing snow and listen for hollow "whumping" sounds.
Heavy Snowfall or Rain
Avalanches are often triggered the day after a storm due to significant loading. Sunny does not mean safe.
Avalanches are possible on any slope steeper than 30° and occur frequently on slopes between 35 and 50°.
Anything that could worsen the consequences of being caught in a slide—for example, trees may increase injury and gullies my deepen burial.
These are the most common places to trigger an avalanche, but if conditions are bad enough, a slide can be remotely triggered from flat ground or a ridge.
The slope's relation to the sun and wind may dictate the presence of avalanche danger.
- Steep slope (above 30°)
- Low-angle slope (below 30°)
- Near rock outcrops and shallow areas in snowpack
- Breakover or mid-slope steepening
- Wind-deposited snow
- Cornices indicate prevailing wind
- Sun Exposure
Never expose more than one person to danger at a time.
Stay spread out if you must move together. Watch each other from safe locations and avoid stopping on or below avalanche terrain. Never ski directly above a partner or another group.
Stay alert to changes in aspect, elevation, or weather that may change snow stability.
Avalanche conditions change throughout the day. Your initial assessment of the danger may not be accurate after you travel even a short distance.
Avoid group-think and keep all options open.
Many accidents happen as a result of experienced backcountry travelers not sharing concerns with each other. Always voice your concerns, even if your partners are more experienced, and ask others in your group if they have any concerns. Address all concerns and make a group decision on how to proceed.
Always be prepared to execute a rescue.
Stay up to date on your rescue practice, and have your beacon, shovel, and probe readily available at all times. Don’t bury any of this gear in the bottom of your pack.
Do everything you can to not get caught.
Always have an exit plan in case an avalanche begins. If caught, do everything you can to avoid being buried. Remember, if buried, your chance of survival is only 30%.
If your partner gets caught, do not go for help!
You have only 15 minutes for a good chance to recover someone alive. Watch your partner as long as you can to establish a last-seen point where you can begin your search and yell to alert others. Quickly establish a leader and make a plan, then get to work conducting your search.
Know before you go
1. Take a class.
Proper education is crucial to staying safe in the Backcountry. Click the map below to find the class nearest you.
It’s not enough to know how to use a beacon and probe. You need to be an expert. If you ever have to conduct a search in real life, you will be doing so under immense stress—it’s hard to think clearly and remember what to do when your friend’s life is in your hands. Practice searches until the entire drill is a reflex. It may save a life one day.
Beacon Training Parks (BTPs) are training systems created to make it easier for recreationists and pros to practice with their transceivers. Look for a BTP near you.
- Mt. Shasta
- Squaw Valley
- Arapahoe Basin
- Aspen Highlands
- Beaver Creek
- Loveland Basin
- Monarch Mountain Basin
- Powder Horn Resort
- Silverton Avalanche School
- Steamboat Resort
- Winter Park
- Wolf Creek
- Bogus Basin
- Brundage Mountain Snowcat Tours
- Big Mountain
- Bridger Bowl
- Moonlight Basin/Big Sky
- Trail Head/Missoula
- West Yellowstone
- Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort
- Mt. Hood, The Mazamas
- Mt. Bachelor
- The Canyons
- Manti Skyline at Big Drift Trailhead
- Noblett's Trailhead/Uintah Mountains
- Snowbird Ski & Snowboard Resort
- Solitude Mountain Resort
- Alpine Safety Awareness Program
- Mt. Baker Ski Area
- White Pass Ski Area
- Castle Mountainy
- Kananaskis County
- Mount Norquay
- Sunshine Village
- Ratzi (near Aldorf) (2)
3. Know your gear.
Backcountry.com has all you need to stay safe in the backcountry.
No one is finding anyone without a beacon. Beacons are an absolute necessity, and everyone in your group should have one.
Drastically speeds up fine searches and helps searchers pinpoint a victim before the digging begins.
A necessity for conducting rescues or digging test pits. Aluminum blades are better for hard avalanche debris.
Slope meters, snow cards, cornice cords, saws, and thermometers help experienced users make more-educated decisions about the conditions.
By increasing buoyancy, these packs may help educated backcountry travelers stay on the surface of an avalanche and avoid burial.
If you get the tube into your mouth in time, this system may help you breathe under the snow to increase the time your friends have to locate you.
4. Check daily reports.
Avalanche advisories provide daily reports on backcountry snow conditions and advice on when and where to avoid skiing. Be familiar with the Avalanche Danger Scale, and always check the day’s report before heading out.
The Bottom Line
By forgoing proper training, you’re not only endangering yourself, you’re risking the life of anyone traveling with you or skiing nearby. There’s more than one meaning to “earn your turns”:
Don’t ski, snowboard, snowshoe, or snowmobile in the backcountry or sidecountry without formal avalanche training. Period.