Avalanche of knowledge
Small tips make a big difference in the backcountry
Volunteers Ricky Pico, left, and Ben Schneider, center, help avalanche safety expert Blaine Smith with a hands-on demonstration during Smith’s presentation on avalanches at the Eagle River Nature Center on Sunday, Dec. 9.
Avoiding avalanches is all about awareness.
“You gotta have your head in the game,” advised avalanche expert Blaine Smith, a trails planner for Alaska State Parks.
A former mountain guide, Smith stopped by the Eagle River Nature Center on Dec. 9 to give a seminar on avalanche safety basics. The most important thing to remember, he said, is to learn what avalanche-prone areas look like.
“There’s certain terrain that avalanches happen in,” he said.
That terrain usually includes snow-covered slopes of between 30 and 45 degrees. Smith said tools for reading slope angles are widely available, and he recommended them for anyone traveling in the mountains. By consistently measuring slopes, he said, people can gain an intuitive idea of what dangerously steep angles look like.
Smith said another key factor in determining avalanche danger is the weather.
“Most fatalities happen during storms,” he said.
Because big snow events can quickly destabilize the snowpack, Smith recommended sticking to flatter terrain when it’s snowing. High winds or rain can also make avalanches more likely, he said.
“Stay off steep, smooth slopes when it’s snowing and blowing,” he said.
During the presentation, audience member Peter Olsson shared the story of a brush with death he once had years ago while skiing at Bridger Bowl in Montana. Olsson said he got caught out in a big storm that was dumping three to four inches of snow on the mountain per hour. Olsson somehow found himself at the top of a steep chute with nowhere to go but down. As Olsson headed down, a wall of snow let loose behind him.
“There was just an unresistable force at my back,” he recalled.
Olsson was tossed about by the snow slide but didn’t get trapped underneath. Instead of becoming a statistic, he got out of the slide with just a missing hat, glove and ski pole. He was lucky, Smith said. Avalanches can be massively powerful, often churning down mountainsides at speeds of 80 MPH or more. And they kill more people in Alaska per capita than any other state.
“They can be pretty big and very destructive,” he said.
Even when the weather is ideal, Smith said, there are a number of clues to look for when assessing avalanche risk. There are also several different kinds of avalanches, and knowing the difference can help gauge how dangerous an area is.
Most avalanches are either “loose snow” avalanches or “slab” avalanches. The former are usually caused by large snow events, Smith said, and thus easy to predict and avoid. The latter, however, can be a bit trickier to predict. Smith said slab avalanches happen when the stress on a snowpack overcomes the pack’s strength. This can happen naturally or when someone — a skier or snowmachiner, for example — comes along to set the slab loose.
Smith said there are a number of clues to look for to determine if a slope might be about to break free. First, he said, look for other avalanches in the area. If similar slopes have slid, it’s a good bet others nearby will, too.
“Avalanches are like fish,” he said. “If you see one there’s probably gonna be others.”
Other telltale signs include shooting cracks in the snow or a “whoomphing” sound coming from the mountains. Either of these conditions, he said, mean avalanche risk is high.
“If you see that it’s a good time to go on low angle slopes,” he said.
To further demonstrate how avalanches happen, Smith got a little messy. He had a pair of volunteers dump a layer of sugar on a flat board. Next, the men dumped flour on top of the sugar. Finally, instant potatoes were added to the mix.
Smith said the layering showed what happens when different layers of snow fall on a mountainside. He then began tilting the board at an angle while another volunteer measured the slope. As the board approached 30 degrees, signs of imminent danger began to appear. Cracks formed in the “snow,” and small slides began to take shape. As the board passed further into the danger zone, the piled ingredients suddenly gave way — burying several toy soldiers and animals placed at the bottom.
“It’s like a bear trap,” Smith said of the sudden nature of avalanches.
Other types of avalanches, though less common, can also kill. Smith said it’s always a good idea to be looking around while traveling in snowy areas. Cornices — outcroppings of snow — are particularly hazardous and should be avoided, he said.
Even on flat land, he said, Alaskans need to keep a watchful eye out for falling snow. He showed a picture of a sign outside the Valdez Catholic Church that read, “Lift your eyes to the heavens and watch for falling ice and snow” beneath a large outcropping of snow and ice.
Another way to keep yourself safe, Smith said, is to travel with trusted partners and know your abilities and deficiencies. Don’t do things that seem dangerous, he said, just because others do.
“Only survivors tell stories,” he pointed out.
Smith said it’s also important to bring the proper safety gear — a shovel, beacon and probe are the minimum, he said — and to know first aid.
However, he said the best way to survive an avalanche is to understand how to not get hit by one.
“The best thing is to not get caught,” he said.