With cooler temps in the air and shorter days on the horizon, it’s time to start planning for winter. Growing resort crowds and rising lift ticket prices are sending many skiers and boarders into the backcountry for the first time. While there’s a level of freedom that comes with earning your turns, backcountry skiing should never be taken lightly. Unlike resort terrain, the backcountry isn’t controlled for avalanche safety. There’s no ski patrol to monitor dangerous areas or rescue you if you are injured. If you’re considering transitioning from resort skiing or riding to the backcountry this winter, you’ll need to do a deep dive into avalanche safety and snow science to ensure you stay as safe as possible in the Washington backcountry. Continue reading below for Gearhouse’s Avalanche Safety 101: How to Prepare for the Washington Backcountry.
What Causes an Avalanche in the Washington Backcountry
Every year, roughly 28 people are killed by avalanches in the United States. While Washington has only averaged 1-2 avalanche deaths a year, avalanches can impact anyone in the backcountry, and it’s vital to understand avalanche safety before venturing into the backcountry. Four contributing factors lead to an avalanche: a steep slope, sufficient snow, a weak layer of snowpack, and some form of catalyst. That catalyst can be a skier ascending or descending the slope or a gentle gust of wind. The catalyst triggers the collapse of the weak layer of snow, which dislodges the snow and creates a slide. While avalanches generally occur on slopes with a grade of 30 degrees or more, smaller avalanches can occur outside these conditions. Avalanches can range in size, from those that can bury a person to those that can swallow a lodge.
Types of Avalanches
Two main types of avalanches can occur when you’re in the backcountry, sluff (loose snow) and slab avalanches. Sluff avalanches occur when the top layer of snow is the weak layer and becomes dislodged. Slab avalanches can happen when the weak layer of snow is buried beneath the snowpack, and movement dislodges an entire section of the snowpack at once. Slab avalanches are significantly more dangerous, with tons of snow traveling downhill at high speeds, sometimes reaching up to 200 mph.
Avalanche Warning Signs
To best avoid avalanches in the Washington backcountry, you must know what to look for beyond posted avalanche warnings. When you’re skiing and climbing in the backcountry, use your eyes and ears to pick up on common warning signs. Be aware of:
Recent Snowfall: If there’s been a significant amount of snowfall in the last 24-48 hours, the risk of an avalanche increases substantially. Additionally, rain, high winds, and a significant temperature change can add to that risk.
Recent Avalanche Activity: Recent avalanches are a sign of unstable conditions It’s best to avoid sites similar in angle and aspect to those that have had recent avalanche activity. Signs of recent avalanches include clumpy snow, debris-filled snow, and clear vertical faces where the snowpack may have been removed from.
Avalanche Noises: Whumpfing is a term used to describe the sound snowpack makes when it’s separated by a catalyst, such as a skier. If you hear a loud “Whumpf” sound from above (or below), and are on a slope steep enough to avalanche, consider avoiding this and similar slopes. Whumfing in a meadow or on flats is a sign of unstable snow in the area..
Shooting Cracks: Another sign of unstable snow is big or small, dramatic cracks forming in the snow. These cracks can stretch for hundreds of feet. If you see shooting cracks, this is another sign of unstable snow.
Always be aware of your surroundings in the backcountry. In addition to monitoring local weather as you would for any adventure, check in with the local avalanche forecast before heading into the mountains. To stay updated on Washington backcountry avalanche activity, head to the Northwest Avalanche Center website. And nothing beats regular, in-person training (with a refresher at least once a season) offered by experts, like the professional guides who teach avalanche safety courses at Gearhouse. Gearhouse is the perfect place to start your backcountry ski and snowboarding journey.
Avalanche Safety Gear
Having the correct avalanche safety gear is paramount to your backcountry prep. Avalanche safety equipment (and the knowledge to safely use such gear) is often the difference between life and death. Avalanche safety packs should include, at minimum, a rescue beacon (also called an avalanche transceiver), a snow probe (collapsible pole used for locating), and a lightweight collapsible shovel. Avalanche safety packs may also have an integrated airbag to help you maintain floatation. Gearhouse offers avalanche rescue training and many types and sizes of avalanche safety packs to fit all types of skiers and boarders.
Properly maintained backcountry skis or split boards are also essential to safe travel in the mountains. You want to be comfortable and use well-maintained gear to ensure the best control in variable backcountry conditions.
Worst Case Scenario Avalanche Safety
If you’re caught in an avalanche, the first thing you should do is get off the moving slab if possible. If you’re a skier (or splitboarder), use your momentum going downhill to veer out of the path of the avalanche as quickly as possible. If you get caught in the avalanche, activate your airbag, grab hold of a tree, or try to swim your way out. Attempting to swim out of the avalanche will generally keep you closer to the surface, which increases the likelihood of you being found by rescuers. Once the snow settles, it will become denser, making it very difficult to move. If you begin to sink or fall completely under the snow, keep a hand close to your face so that you can make an air pocket. While under the snowpack, time and oxygen are limited. First, clear a space in front of you using your hands and head, then begin punching upwards. If you can’t tell which direction is up, use the spit test to identify which direction gravity is pulling and dig in the opposite direction. Your avalanche beacon should be working, so if you can’t dig yourself out after a few tries, sit tight, breathe slowly, and wait for help.
If a member of your group is buried in an avalanche, act quickly and immediately start a rescue. If you’re both wearing beacons, set your beacon to search and turn off all other electronic devices to eliminate interference. Make a mental note of the last place you saw the victim and begin your search. While searching, use extreme caution to avoid triggering additional avalanches, and make sure searcher safety is a priority. A Gearhouse avalanche rescue course will teach you the essentials for conducting a beacon search, using a probe to pinpoint a victim, and strategic shoveling to rescue a partner.
Always go into the backcountry with a partner or a group with proper avalanche safety training and equipment, and be prepared for worst-case scenarios. If you’re new to the backcountry or just want a refresher on avalanche safety, check out our calendar for upcoming courses. Gearhouse also offers a great ski and snowboard community to help you find your next backcountry partners.