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Avalanche avoidance is a practical approach to avalanche safety

Avalanche avoidance is a practical approach to avalanche safety and travel in the mountains in the winter and spring. Snow avalanches are complex, natural phenomena that are studied in detail worldwide.

Professional avalanche controllers may be able to assess and maintain the general safety of particular slopes in-bounds of their ski resort, but for backcountry travelers there is a different story.

Backcountry downhill skiers and snowboarders must accept the obvious avalanche dangers of steep snow slopes.  Deaths of professional heli-ski guides and their clients are reported every year. Read more about this risk from the linked experience reports below.

Do snow-riders have a false sense of security based on their limited layman's knowledge from an avalanche class or two and the purchase of expensive gear and electronic equipment?  This question is being asked more and more often.  A wind slab avalanche may be many feet thick – will the typical snow-rider dig to the ground in a ten-foot snow pack? And even if he does will peer pressure and enthusiasm enter into the decision to give it a try?  Is there a cadre of professional ski-resort ski-patrollers available to probe for the injured and entombed party, encased in air-tight "concrete", even just a couple of feet below the surface?

The backcountry traveler: hiker, climber, peak-bagger, snowshoer and nordic skier (and snow-machine driver) can practice simple, common sense Avalanche Avoidance Techniques:

>Is the current general avalanche danger rating Low, Moderate, High or Extreme? No mater what the avalanche hazard, there are avalanche-free areas in the mountains.

>General observations, following the current area avalanche hazard warnings and safe route selection are common sense ways to avoid major risk.

>The safest routes are on the ridge tops and slightly on the windward side, away from any cornices.

>If you cannot travel on the ridges, the next safest route is out in the valley, away from the obvious deposition zones at the bottom of slopes.  Observe old slide paths, recent avalanche activity on slopes with a similar aspect, sounds and cracks, volcanic scree slopes with no features to hold the snow pack.

>If you must cross a potentially dangerous slope, stay high and near the top. If you must ascend or descend a dangerous slope, go straight up or down; do not traverse back and forth, cutting the snow pack. Take advantage of areas of dense timber, ridges and rocky outcrops as islands of safety.

>Keep in mind that most people die under small slides, including roof releases. Recently, two snowshoe travelers in Washington were found days buried in their tent under the snow under the search helicopter-landing zone at the foot of just a small slope.

Learn everything you can about avalanche activity and select the safest routes.  Any reliance on expensive gear and gadgets may actually put you in more danger!
--Robert Speik
Copyright© 1999-2014 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.


Avalanche: Harsh lessons
Posted 21 Dec 2003, on

"Background: Dec 12-13, two avalanche fatalities. Two deadly avalanches. 3 snowshoers (not just one, but the whole party) caught "near" Artist's Pt, 1 snowshoer caught in Source Lake Basin following tracks set by a group lead by Mountain Madness, Inc.

YOU can help save lives.  >>. . . I am thinking about my own decision-making process. . . << - markharf

Mountain Madness had no business leading folks up avalanche central in Saturday's conditions. It is hard, sometimes, to question our leaders and experts. Their job, after all, is to lead, but is it yours to follow?

Question authority. Not to pick a fight, but to better understand the reasons behind the decision. Help them revisit the decision and prove, not justify, the action to your satisfaction. Never delegate decisions to others with out understanding them.

I fear that this weekend's avalanche fatalities could be the sign of a disturbing trend. The recreational industry wants to sell as much gear as possible. It is more difficult to sell an activity that appears dangerous or fool-hardy. I fear that the industries reaction to the sad events of this weekend will be to sell more avalanche beacons, or as I call them "corpse finders." It is a simple thing to buy an avalanche beacon, play with it a little, and feel safe whereas what is really needed is the training to be able to identify avalanche zones and route-find around them. Unfortunately, this type of avalanche training is not something I see the industry selling in a box at the local recreation store.

I call upon all of you to educate your fellow back-country users, be they skiers, snowmachiners, snowshoers, or others. Promote avalanche classes that emphasize route-finding and safe travel. Help other parties make informed decisions."


The following text quotes from the Avalanche Warning for Memorial Day Weekend, 2005 . . .

BACKCOUNTRY AVALANCHE FORECAST FOR THE OLYMPICS WASHINGTON CASCADES AND MT HOOD AREA NORTHWEST WEATHER AND AVALANCHE CENTER SEATTLE WASHINGTON 100 PM PDT FRI MAY 27 2005 NWAC Program administered by: USDA-Forest Service with cooperative funding and support from: Washington State Department of Transportation National Weather Service National Park Service Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association Friends of the Avalanche Center and other private organizations. This forecast applies to back country avalanche terrain below 7000 feet and does not apply to highways or operating ski areas. WAZ012-017-018-019-025-042-ORZ011-281700-

...A REMINDER TO SKIERS AND CLIMBERS TO CONTINUE TO PAY ATTENTION TO SNOW CONDITIONS AT HIGHER ELEVATIONS THROUGH THE MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND... Winds and significant precipitation at unusually low freezing levels was seen about a week ago. About 1 to 4 inches of water equivalent was seen during that time on the Cascade volcanoes especially on Mt Baker. This means that up to 1 to 4 feet of snow was possible during that time at higher elevations in the Washington Cascades particularly on the volcanoes. Hot weather the past couple days is likely to have already caused wet snow avalanches and to have greatly consolidated the recent snow on other slopes. But temperatures are also expected to remain very warm through the Memorial Day weekend with some high based cumulus or thunderstorms possible. Sunshine and solar effects through the weekend may continue to maintain wet weak snow and possible natural or especially human triggered wet snow avalanches. Activity should mainly develop on directly sun exposed terrain, primarily east or southeast exposures during morning and then southwest and west facing terrain during the afternoon, but other aspects may experience wet snow instability as well. Wet snow avalanches of this type may need little or no disturbance to slide. Wet snow instability can sometimes be assessed by pushing snow onto test slopes with no one below. Remember that wet snow avalanches may start slow and small but entrain snow as they descend and become large avalanches. Again these potential conditions are expected mainly on the Cascade volcanoes. During past springs in the Northwest, several fatal accidents have occurred from climbers or skiers releasing and being caught in relatively small avalanches, which subsequently carried the victims over cliffs or into moats or crevasses. Hence backcountry travelers should try to be aware of terrain and other people above and below intended routes. Please have a safe and enjoyable spring and summer! The NWAC looks forward to serving you again next winter. Updates to this statement will be issued as warranted. Backcountry travelers should be aware that elevation and geographic distinctions are approximate and that a transition zone between dangers exists. Remember there are avalanche safe areas in the mountains during all levels of avalanche danger. Contact local authorities in your area of interest for further information. NWAC weather data and forecasts are also available by calling 206-526-6677 for Washington, 503-808-2400 for the Mt Hood area, or by visiting our Web site at Ferber/Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.


Deschutes National Forest Avalanche Information Notice  02.25.10

"The Deschutes National Forest has terrain that is subject to snow avalanches. In recent years, there has been increasing incidence of winter backcountry users involved in avalanches; some involving fatalities. The Deschutes National Forest does not have an avalanche advisory program to inform recreationists of avalanche danger levels nor do its employees perform snowpack evaluation or avalanche control for the public.
Backcountry users venturing into avalanche terrain should be aware of potential risk and should be skilled and trained at recognizing potential avalanche areas and snowpack conditions and act accordingly. Be responsible for your own safety and that of others around you; perform careful snowpack evaluations, stability tests and make safe route decisions. Avalanche potential can increase with increasing slope angle, snowfall, rain, wind, changing temperatures, other factors and avalanche hazard can escalate in a short time. If you do not have avalanche training, consider sticking to low profile terrain.
Ski/snowboard resorts on the Deschutes do provide a high level of avalanche control on their managed slopes within bounds. Keep in mind that during severe weather events, even these areas may be subject to elevated avalanche conditions.

For more information on avalanche education and safety practices, visit:
the Forest Service National Avalanche Center Avalanche Awareness website at;
Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center website at: at:
Central Oregon Avalanche Center at: (DEVELOPING)

Opportunities for Avalanche courses in the Central Oregon area include:
Thank you for your attention to this user safety issue!"



Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated

Read more . . .
Climbers swept by avalanche while descending North Sister's Thayer Glacier Snowfield
Maps of the winter trails near Bend Oregon
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"The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek", a New York Times Special Report
Avalanche Risk in the Spring
Avalanche risk advisory issued January 19, 2012
Young Bend man dies in back county avalanche
"Avalanche!" A training Resource from the Mountain Rescue Association    a 17 page manual by Charley Shimanski, in pdf
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"Avalanche!" A training Resource from Mountain Rescue Association    a 17 page manual by Charley Shimanski, in pdf
Climbers swept by avalanche while descending North Sister's Thayer Glacier Snowfield
Three personal experiences with avalanches
Mount Hood avalanche proves fatal for members of climbing group
Snowfield Snowshoer dies in backcountry avalanche in Washington State
Young Bend man dies in remote backcountry avalanche
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Basic Responsibilities of the cross country skier
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Fatal Mount Hood avalanche described by Climbing Ranger

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