Avalanches occur when a mass of snow breaks loose and rapidly descends down a slope. They are violent and dangerous, like nature’s bulldozers. To prepare for this wild force of nature, we educate ourselves. Avalanche safety training delves into the science behind this common phenomena, educating participants on factors like snowpack stability, slope angles and weather conditions. Keeping yourself safe keeps your partners safe, and anyone else sharing the mountain with you. 

What is an Avalanche?

An avalanche is a powerful and potentially devastating natural phenomenon typically occurring in mountainous regions, characterized by the rapid descent of snow, ice, and debris down a slope, primarily driven by the force of gravity acting on unstable snowpacks. The immediate impact involves the destruction of everything in the avalanche’s path. The powerful force of an avalanche can bury victims under tons of snow, making rescue operations challenging and time-sensitive. Understanding the mechanics, causes, and consequences of avalanches is crucial for mitigating the risks. A complex interplay of several natural (and human) factors drive avalanches, and learning the nuances of snowpack science is the backbone of avalanche education. 

There are several types of avalanches, each distinguished by characteristics and the nature of the slope. Slab avalanches are the most common, occurring when a cohesive layer of snow breaks loose from the surrounding snowpack and slides down the slope as a single unit. Powder avalanches involve loosely packed snow, resembling a cascading cloud of fine particles. Wet avalanches are the heaviest and most destructive, occurring when the snowpack becomes saturated with water due to rain or temperature changes. Snowpack stability impacts all avalanches, and all avalanches have one thing in common, they can all be wildly destructive.

Navigating avalanche territory puts you and everyone around you at risk. Every inch climbed uphill in backcountry is a constant evaluation of conditions, snowpack, and potential safety. Understanding how to assess and mitigate these risks requires more practice than actual riding, and not being equipped with safety gear or skills, or taking unsafe risks are frowned upon in outback territory. The chilling reality is simple: if you become buried in an avalanche, your survival depends on someone else. 

How to Survive an Avalanche?

There is something truly awe-inspiring about careening down untouched powder, but before venturing into avalanche-prone areas, it’s important to understand and recognize the signs of avalanches. The best way to survive an avalanche is to avoid one. Recent snowfall, temperature changes, wind patterns, sun aspect and local terrain are just some of the variables to consider. AIARE Avalanche safety courses cover topics like snowpack analysis and rescue procedures, while also allowing you to practice using your gear. While nothing can replicate a true avalanche emergency, these preventative courses offer great platforms to ready yourself for the worst-case scenario. 

Avalanche safety training helps you avoid avalanches, but you also need to be prepared if one were to happen. You need to have the right equipment, and know how to use it. Every member of a backcountry group should be equipped with an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a shovel. Transceivers help locate buried victims, probes assist in pinpointing their exact location, and shovels are essential for efficient digging during rescue operations. Using these tools especially with gloves on and under pressure takes some practice. 

Avalanche safety is a shared responsibility among backcountry enthusiasts, and a commitment to these principles can contribute to a safer and more enjoyable mountainous experience. By educating oneself, employing proper safety equipment, making informed decisions, and practicing effective rescue techniques, individuals can increase their chances of emerging unscathed from this formidable natural force, or avoid it entirely. The backcountry is a beautiful place deserving of both respect and preparation.

Want to be prepared for your next winter backcountry adventure? We offer American Institutes for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) avalanche training courses (AIARE Level 1; AIARE Level 2 and AIARE Avalanche Rescue) which provide an introduction and opportunity for developing essential decision-making skills for avalanche hazard management. We practice how to read snow, use gear and save lives through avalanche education. Give us a call at 720-242-9828 or contact us to learn more. 

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