Avalanche

He has seen it time and again.

As an U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Chris Joosen’s beat is New Hampshire’s Mount Washington where climbers sometimes die — like two did in November, 2002 — from avalanches.

Joosen is involved in search and rescues. He interviews the victims and writes the all-important bible of snowy backcountry travel — the avalanche bulletin.

“They can have 20 years of experience, but they never learn much about snow,” Joosen said.

Hiker, skier, snowboarder, climber or snowshoer, it doesn’t matter. Traveling through avalanche country is tricky business. Identifying avalanche terrain, understanding the avalanche bulletins and knowing how to use rescue equipment, such as beacons, probes and shovels, are all taught in a basic Level One avalanche awareness class.

mountain hikers
Backcountry travelers venturing into avalanche terrain must know the risks. (Photos by Marty Basch)

Various clubs and organizations often host workshops that are taught by instructors coming from guide services and outdoor schools.

“There is no safe in avalanches,” said Bill Kane, an instructor at SOLO Wilderness and Emergency Medicine in Conway, N.H., with 26 years teaching experience. “There is safer or riskier.”

Avalanche Prone Areas
Portions of the United States have a number of avalanche prone areas from New Hampshire’s White Mountains to Washington State’s Cascades and beyond. Backcountry trekkers heading into avalanche terrain must know how to assess the risks in the areas they are traveling.

This begins with a little science involving the snow pack or snow structure, the slope’s steepness, and weather patterns. The idea is to gain an understanding of how they all interact with each other.

Most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 degrees and 45 degrees, during or soon after a snowfall. This is because the snow here is unsettled and susceptible to movement.

Backcountry travelers are alerted to conditions via the U.S. Forest Service’s avalanche bulletin, which is a five scale danger rating system from “low” to “extreme” usually issued between late October and May.

The scale rates the probability of both natural and human caused snow slides and alerts trekkers to potential travel risks.

The problem, according to several members of the search and rescue community, is that people use the literal definitions of the words in the ratings, instead of applying them within the context of avalanches.

“Low hazard doesn’t mean no hazard,” said Jay Philbrick, a guide with Chauvin International Guides in North Conway, N.H. “People have been caught in a low hazard.”

The bulletins can be viewed online at web sites such as www.avalanche.org.

In addition to carrying proper winter gear, travelers through avalanche terrain are encouraged to pack a beacon, probe and shovel — what Joosen calls the “holy trinity” — to use if they happen into harm’s way.

The beacon is a transmitter that allows people in a climbing party to send and receive a signal, aiding in finding someone who’s been buried in a snow slide. The probe can be a ski pole with its basket removed, ice ax or even a stick, while the shovel is used to reach a buried victim.

Students Identify Terrain
Students in an avalanche awareness class visit the areas to see what the terrain looks like. They get a sense of where the unstable snow is likely to be found, and how the wind impacts the snow. They’ll dig snow pits to see the different types of layered snow that have consistency from sugar-like to ice.

“After a Level One class, you should be able to identify avalanche terrain,” Philbrick said. “If you don’t know you’re in it, you’re at risk.”

New Hampshire's Mount Washington
New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is in avalanche country.

The classes also are designed to get backcountry skiers and such to think about their behavior in risky, snow-filled alpine chutes and gullies.

A day trekking in the mountains takes some planning. There’s the long drive or flight, and then the weather might not be the best. And then someone might have forgotten a piece of gear.

“There is a huge incentive to keep going,” Philbrick said. “The tendency is to want to push and maybe that’s not the right decision.”

When Kane teaches a class at SOLO, he’ll take students outside to do a mock search. They’ll probe the snow. They’ll shovel and soon realize that looking for a buried hiking buddy is a lot different than spiriting the car out of a snowy driveway.

While they’re probing, sometimes someone will ask what happens if they poke a victim in the eye. That’s the risk, Kane will explain, of being in a horrible situation that no one wants to be in.

“The primary avalanche tool is a brain that recognizes it is unsafe to go into unstable avalanche terrain,” Kane said.

Make sure you have the right gear. Visit Sportsman’s Guide for a selection of jackets and coats.

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