Are You Prepared for an Avalanche?

A basic 10-question checklist to make sure that you're focusing on the right things when you head out into the backcountry

A crown fracture from a slab avalanche near the Neve Glacier.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Until a few years ago, standard Avalanche 1 courses focuses on teaching students to dig snow pits and look for weak and faceted layers that might cause a slide. Now there's a movement to prioritize decision making based on terrain, human factors, and conditions rather than snow-pit analysis.

"The first thing I tell new backcountry skiers to do is sign up for an avalanche course," says Margaret Wheeler, a Washington-based mountain guide. "The second thing I tell them is to find a course that focuses on decision making."

Here's a checklist to help you get started.

TERRAIN:

  • Are you skiing in 25-to-45-degree steeps, the slopes most likely to slide?
  • Is there safer, lower-angle terrain you should be skiing instead?
  • Are you factoring in terrain traps like gullies and streambeds?

HUMAN FACTORS:

  • Are you skiing the terrain for the right reasons?
  • Is social pressure, a scarcity of good snow, or familiarity causing you to ski a dangerous slope?
  • How aware are you of the expert halo—the false sense of security the experienced often get simply because they're experienced?

WEATHER AND CONDITIONS:

  • Is there a lot of new snow or high winds?
  • What does the regional avalanche forecast say?
  • What is the temperature and weather forecast?
  • Have you seen any fresh avalanches or heard the telltale whoomping sound of snow collapsing?

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