From California to Colorado, over the past two weeks, new snow has blanketed the mountains of the West. The allure of untouched powder can be irresistible—and deadly. During the 2011-12 season, as has been well documented, there were 34 avalanche-related fatalities, including some of the most seasoned backcountry skiers. This year in the United States, avalanches have already killed nine people in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and California.
Avalanche risk assessment is critical to skiing—and staying alive—in the backcountry. Most backcountry enthusiasts (hopefully) refer to their local avalanche forecasting and advisory resource, whether it’s the Utah Avalanche Center, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, or local online resources.
But who is behind these sites that we backcountry skiers so blindly put our trust into?
They’re people like Tim Brown, 38, an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Information Center. During the winter, Brown's days are spent monitoring a 5,000-mile area in Colorado that includes the Sawatch and Vail/Summit County zones. In summer, he’s a mountain guide and leads expeditions in the Tetons, Alaska, Canada, and South America. Here, Brown talks about the most common mistakes backcountry skiers make, how to mitigate risk, and how to survive an avalanche.
With regards to avalanches, what are the most common mistakes backcountry travelers make?
Most of it’s a lack of a thorough planning—not checking the local avalanche bulletin, not recognizing signs of unstable snow, not making decisions as a group. Sometimes people just don’t set themselves up for success by making good decisions.
Over the past few weeks, a lot of new snow has fallen across the West. What advice would you give to people heading into the backcountry?
Use a systematic approach to decision-making. Carefully consider the consequences of any decision before you commit. Ask yourself: Why should we go there, what’s the consequence if we have a problem, and what’s the likelihood this problem will occur? Don’t try to out-think the problem. When faced with uncertainty, attempt to reduce the uncertainty or make conservative decisions. The mountains aren’t going anywhere. Travel with a partner. Carry and know how to use avalanche rescue gear. If the terrain is appropriate for the conditions and the group, enjoy it.
What can people can do to mitigate their risk in the backcountry?
Check the avalanche bulletin to identify the avalanche concerns and where they are in the terrain. Avalanche bulletins will often give you an idea of the likelihood, size, and distribution of avalanche problems as well. Identify features of concern and use maps, guidebooks, Google Earth, and pictures of the terrain to pre-plan options and alternative routes based on expected conditions. You can pre-plan decision points and even parameters for choosing among your options. Decide where you are going to gather information about the snowpack along the way. This will set your group up for making decisions along a continuum rather than just the information available to you when you get there. Use your observations to recognize the avalanche problems mentioned in the bulletin and to realize when localized conditions are worse than expected.
Pre-plan your emergency response and make sure you work as a team to make decisions together. Ensure that everyone in the group has a voice and is expected to contribute to the decision-making process. I like to give veto power to all my partners. If anyone feels uncomfortable with our terrain choice, we fall back to a safer terrain option. I’m pretty sure it has saved my life at least once.
Finally, manage your group in the terrain to minimize the consequences of a miscalculation. Traveling one at a time through avalanche terrain and stopping in safe areas can be very effective at minimizing the risk, but these travel techniques should never trump your terrain choices. If you make an error, correct it immediately so that it doesn’t cascade into a bigger problem. In a nutshell, you can set yourself up to mitigate much of the risk by choosing your partners carefully and taking the time to make a thorough plan together. This process works well.
Let's say you're caught in an avalanche, what are some tips you would give to help people survive?
First off, don’t get caught in an avalanche. Make good decisions to stay out of an avalanche. If you are caught, make sure you’re the only one caught and that you’ve pre-planned your escape route if one is available. Make sure your partners are watching you. Wear an avalanche transceiver and check to make sure that it works every day that you go out. Make sure your partners are wearing transceivers, carrying probes and shovels, and have recently practiced companion rescue. If you’re using an AvaLung, put it in your mouth before you get caught. If you’re using a balloon pack, make sure the trigger is easily accessible and deploy it right away. Consider wearing a helmet in the backcountry. I do. My partners and I practice rescue techniques, realize that our rescue gear is no replacement for making good decisions, and are committed to staying out of avalanches.
What's the most common cause of death from an avalanche?
About 75 percent of people that are killed in avalanches in the U.S. die from asphyxia. About 25 percent die from trauma, and a small percentage of victims succumb to hypothermia. A significant portion of those who die from asphyxia also have significant life-threatening trauma. It’s worth taking first aid and CPR courses if you think you might have to rescue someone.
How would you describe the current snowpack in the West?
I can only speak to Colorado with authority. We have had below average snowfall in most of Colorado this year. The snowpack developed several widespread weak layers during long intervals between storms and even small amounts of snowfall have produced significant avalanche cycles. Because of the widespread weak layers, our snowpack will likely remain dangerous and untrustworthy for the rest of the season in most of Colorado. This may not be the year to ski big lines, but you can still have a ton of fun riding less committing terrain.
Will the snowpack improve with this new snowfall or get worse?
Conditions are dangerous right now and they’re going to get worse before they get better. We have a widespread weak layer near the bottom of our shallow snowpack. It’s become reactive nearly every time we’ve gotten even small amounts of new snow in January and February. Avalanche danger may rise and fall as the weather changes, but the lurking problem at the bottom of our snowpack won’t go away until the snow melts.
What do you think about balloon backpacks? A good tool and lifesaver or do they give inexperienced people a false sense of security?
Both. Balloon packs can be useful tools in reducing burial depths of avalanche victims, but they’re no substitute for good decision making. They’re not a magic bullet. It’s still important to carry and know how to use avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels. I have a balloon pack, but I only use it sometimes. They do save lives, but there’s no guarantee that it will save yours if you get caught.
Why were there so many avalanche fatalities last year?
There were 34 people killed in avalanches in the U.S. during the 2011-12 season. This is too many, but I can’t point to one thing that’s responsible for the increase. It’s worth noting that 20 percent of the total number were killed in just two accidents: three at Tunnel Creek in Washington last February and four on Denali in June. The numbers would have looked a lot different if only one person had been killed in each of these slides. There’s definitely an increase in backcountry use and I’ve noticed a lot more people choosing aggressive terrain even when the snow is unstable in some of the areas that I frequent.
In your opinion, what's the optimal group size for a backcountry skiing crew?
It depends on the objective and the people. In most cases, I like groups of three or four strong partners with similar skills, risk acceptance, and a commitment to making decisions together. Small groups help streamline the decision-making process while highly-functioning larger groups can take advantage of more diverse perspectives and provide more resources if there’s an accident.
Beyond taking an AIARE 1 class, what would your advice be for improving backcountry and avalanche awareness skills?
Find a mentor. A good mentor is not just somebody who has been doing it for a long time, but someone who learns from her mistakes and successes, realizes that she will never have it all figured out, but strives to continuously learn and improve. A good mentor will help you to do the same.
How do you make the leap from skiing with a group of experienced backcountry skiers or a guide to skiing on your own with friends and making your own decisions about avalanche danger?
Start small, ease in, be conservative, make mistakes, and learn from them. One approach I use is to estimate, verify, and reassess. For example, you can give your best guess before measuring slope angles or digging snow profiles and then match up what you find with what you expected. I still do this. If you gain experience where the consequences are small, you will develop skills for when you really need them. It’s important to practice on your own or with partners with similar experience and to recognize when you’re operating outside of your realm of experience. Identify the skills you’re not comfortable with and seek additional instruction or guidance from a mentor to refine them.
Describe your job, a typical day on the job, and how you make an avalanche forecast?
I predict avalanche conditions and I educate people about avalanches. My intent is to provide people with information to make safer decisions in the backcountry and to help them get the goods without getting into trouble. Forecasting is an ongoing process. I spend lots of time on skis and snowmobiles, assessing snow stability in the backcountry throughout the approximately 5,000-square-mile area that I forecast for. Then I return to my office and compare my own observations to those that other backcountry travelers submit to a database the CAIC maintains.
Most days, I also talk with ski patrollers at the nine ski resorts in my forecast zones about the results of their avalanche mitigation efforts. I focus on trends and notable anomalies in snow conditions to assess snow stability and combine this with the weather forecast to predict changes in avalanche danger.
Four days a week, I get up around four in the morning to update my predictions with the latest data from remote weather sites and discuss danger ratings and avalanche problems with other CAIC forecasters around the state via an ongoing Skype chat. Then I write public avalanche bulletins for two backcountry zones, publish them on our website, and leave messages on phone hotlines by 8 a.m. Finally, I head out the door to verify my forecasts in the field and do it all over again.
About once a week, I teach avalanche courses and speak at avalanche awareness seminars hosted by a variety of organizations to educate people about avalanches. When necessary, I investigate avalanche accidents and incidents and document them on our website.
How did you get into this field of work?
It all started with my love for powder skiing and curiosity about snow while living in Crested Butte, Colorado, in the late '90s. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. So I took some avalanche courses, found some mentors, and spent a lot of time skiing in the backcountry. Eventually, I became an avalanche educator and instructor trainer through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) and an internationally-certified (UIAGM/IFMGA) mountain guide through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). I honed my snow, weather, and avalanche observation skills by submitting observations to the CAIC and began forecasting avalanches while guiding backcountry ski descents, alpine climbs, and high-altitude expeditions. When my predecessor left his post after nine years, I saw the job at the CAIC as an opportunity to impact a larger group of people and to continue my own learning.
What do you like about snow science?
I like knowing that I will never learn all there is to know about snow and avalanches despite my endless curiosity about them. Snow is a wonderful medium to work and play in. It appeals to seemingly disparate parts of my being, keeping me up late at night studying scientific papers and making me giggle like a child when it billows up over my shoulders in the middle of a deep powder turn. Snow is always changing from the minute it forms in a cloud until it melts away, and so is our understanding of it. Snow is ephemeral, reminding us to enjoy the moments it’s here while we still can.
Oh yeah, the question was about snow science. I like that my understanding of snow and avalanche processes helps me anticipate how the snowpack will change over time and vary over the terrain. I like that I can observe these processes in the field and use them to explain what I’m seeing and experiencing. I like that science helps me predict when and where avalanches will occur and how long problems will persist. As a forecaster and educator, I come into contact with a lot of other people who are curious about snow. I get to share ideas with my colleagues and learn from their experiences. Merging theory and practice helps me to simplify complex issues in ways that people can utilize to make better decisions.
Can you attribute all or most avalanche accidents to human factors or sometimes do people just have bad luck?
Sure, there is luck involved, but you can limit your risk by familiarizing yourself with the avalanche problems, knowing how to look for instability, identifying features of concern, and avoiding the problematic terrain.
Recent research shows that most fatal avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party. There’s some luck involved in these situations, too. Sometimes people find the isolated spots where avalanches can be triggered. When there is a high degree of uncertainty because of variable snow conditions, like we have in most of Colorado this winter, it’s wise to make conservative terrain choices.
One of the trickiest parts of dealing with avalanches is that you can make bad decisions and get away with it much of the time. If you habitually make bad decisions, there’s a good chance that it will eventually catch up to you. If you want to travel in avalanche terrain without getting caught, you have to keep the big picture in mind: Look for signs of instability by carefully evaluating the snowpack and weather, plan route options and alternatives, and get to know yourself and your partners so that you can consistently make good decisions together. It’s incredibly rewarding.
When you’re not working, what’s your favorite backcountry area in Colorado to ski?
A little range that doesn’t exist near Vail.