Learn how to spot avalanche danger, what equipment you need, and how to use it.
Snow sports are a blast – whether that means you are addicted to snowmobiling, snowboarding, skiing, or anything else that gets you out into the backcountry. There are loads of things that get packed up when you decide to take a trip into the backcountry – the snowmobiles, jackets, helmets, food, snacks for the drive out, and more – however one of the most overlooked things to take is often forgotten. This “thing” I am talking about is an education of the backcountry and the dangers that come with the use of it – namely avalanches. So we here at SnowBigDeal have decided to put together a guide of avalanche information – including how to spot avalanche danger areas and recommended gear for those heading into the backcountry.
Spotting Avalanche Danger
When you are running around in the backcountry there are a plethora of opportunistic places to ride – especially the challenging slopes. It may take a minute to survey the scene, but it could pay off in the end if you can analyze avalanche danger before you are in it. A few of these indications of dangerous terrain include:
Nearly all avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Avalanches rarely occur on slopes lower than 30 degrees and slopes above 50 degrees typically sluff and tend to not build into the dreaded slabs. Slopes between 37 and 40 degrees are the "bullseye" - most likely to slide.
Weather conditions can significantly increase avalanche dangers within the course of a day, one of these conditions is wind. If you come across a slope that has been recently wind-loaded you are best to stay away from it. If you come across a slope that has been wind-eroded, be mindful of where that snow has been deposited.
Another weather condition that can affect avalanche dangers is the sun. The direction of slope faces play a crucial part in determining avalanche danger. During the mid-winter season north-facing (shady) slopes produce more avalanches. In the springtime, watch for wet avalanches to occur on south-facing slopes.
Before you even leave your house take a few minutes to look over local avalanche advisories – that’s what they are there for. The advisories are compiled data from “avalanche experts,” weather stations, and riders – so the information is thorough and can be extremely valuable. These advisories are represented in visual aides - such as the Avalanche Danger Rose shown to the right. The advisories are broken down into 5 danger levels - extreme, high, considerable, moderate, and low - with the majority of accidents occurring when the danger is rated as "considerable."
When it comes to gear that you should pack with you into the backcountry there are a few essentials that you should definitely take along. This checklist includes an avalanche transceiver (beacon), probe, shovel, and avalanche airbag. There are other various things that many people like to have in addition to the essentials – such as the BCA BC Link Group Communication Radio – Which is designed with the backcountry user in mind. These radios offer a way for your group to easily communicate with each other while riding. The BC Link makes it easy to check up on other members in your party or to warn them of upcoming dangers.
Avalanche rescue beacons (transceivers, locaters) have proven to be the only reliable way to locate a completely buried victim in time to save their life – which is why it is our #1 recommended piece of gear to have with you in the backcountry. There are many different beacons out there (they all work with each other) to choose from – different brands, features, designs – all with their own pros and cons. You can browse from our high-quality beacons by clicking here. If you are looking for a simple beacon that will get the job done we recommend the Tracker 3 or the Pieps DSP Sport – both are simple to use and serve their function well. Remember beacons are only useful if you and your riding partners have them. So make sure that you are all prepared this season. We also recommend that you get together and practice using them before you ever head up the mountain. The pros practice at least once a week so they can focus finding a buried victim rather than trying to find out how to turn their beacon on.
With the help of an avalanche beacon you can find the general area in which a victim is buried – but because digging is such a laborious task, it is smart to know exactly where to dig – which is where an avalanche probe comes into play. This is perhaps the simplest piece of avalanche equipment – but there are still differences between them – length, material, locking mechanism, etc. Browse our selection of avalanche probes here. If you are looking for a simple and functional probe we recommend the BCA Stealth 240cm or a Mammut Fast-Lock 240cm – both are small when packed, 240cm when extended, and made with a durable aluminum.
Shoveling literally tons of snow is the most exhausting part of an avalanche rescue – so choosing a quality shovel that won’t break under pressure is crucial. Many modern shovels take advantage of scoop size, saws, blade position, and adaptability that make an avalanche rescue that much easier. A great example of a durable shovel with bonus features is the BCA D2 Dozer Shovel with Folding Saw. The Dozer shovel can be quickly turned into a hoe for rapid snow removal using the bigger muscles in your back to prevent fatigue. The Dozer also features a folding saw that stows in the handle, and the handle extends for ultimate functionality while remaining packable. It is wise to have two shovels – one like the BCA D2 Dozer on your avalanche pack and a bigger shovel like the Klim Backcountry Shovel on your sled. Browse more shovels with other features by clicking here.
The other essentials are used to help others – however an avalanche airbag is the best piece of gear you can get to help yourself. An avalanche airbag is a backpack (or vest) worn over your jacket that stores your gear, goggles, food, and other things that you might bring on the mountain – with the ability to deploy an air-filled bag to help you stay afloat in avalanche debris. If you find yourself in the middle of an avalanche you simply pull a trigger on your shoulder that deploys an airbag. This airbag does a few things; it decreases your density – which makes it easier to float atop avalanche debris, creates a bigger air pocket should you become buried, and some like the SnowPulse Pro Protection Airbag provide trauma protection (seeing as a quarter of avalanche deaths come from trauma). The main differences among airbags are the fit, weight, storage capacity, canister/deployment system, and style (either backpack or vest). Click here to browse from our selection of industry leading airbags.
Performing an Avalanche Rescue
Performing a Beacon Search
Now that we better understand the parts of a beacon let's get down to the steps involved with a beacon search.
First and foremost, before ever heading on your ride make sure your beacons are on, transmitting, and functioning properly. We recommend performing a group check before heading up the trail.
If an avalanche does happen make sure to keep an eye on the person in the avalanche zone so that you might have a better idea of where that person is buried and, in turn, where you should start searching.
Quickly make sure that all of the members of your search party have their beacons set to search mode. This is crucial - if a beacon in the search party is on transmit it will end up being the signal your beacon will pick up.
Starting close to where the person may be buried or the last-seen-area, work your way down the mountain in switchbacks no more than 40 meters (130 feet) from each other and 20 meters (65 feet) from either side of the slide zone.
If there are multiple searchers spread out no more than 40 meters from each other and work your way down the fall line. Move fast and look for clues on the surface.
Once the signal is detected follow the directional arrows and distance readings towards the victim's signal. This path will often be curved. Remember to move fast until the distance reading displays 3 meters.
Slow down and pay close attention to your distance readings. Get as close to the snow surface as possible and find the lowest distance reading.
At the lowest reading search in a perpendicular path similar to an "x" and find the lowest distance.
Knowing your Probe
A probe, simply put, is a long rod that comes collapsed to fit into tight spaces like a bag, but quickly extends to length in a matter of milliseconds. This rod is then used to probe - which is basically poking around in the snow until you strike or hit something or hopefully someone. Understanding the probe and its markings is crucial to a successful probing and therefore avalanche rescue. The probe is marked in centimeters so that finding the depth at which someone is buried is easy to do - the burial depth will determine how you should excavate/shovel the area. When you have hit something do NOT remove the probe - this will guide you during the shoveling process. Below will detail the steps to take for a proper probe search.
With a Beacon
If a beacon is used during the avalanche rescue, you should be fairly close to the victim (typically about 3 meters). Your beacon should assist you in finding your lowest distance reading -- from this point probe 10 inches apart in concentric circles inserting the probe perpendicular to the snow surface (rather than straight down). After striking the victim, leave the probe in place and start shoveling downhill from the probe.
Without a Beacon
Probing without a beacon is significantly harder, but when it comes to somebody you care about you've got to do what you've got to do. The process used is called "spot probing"and in this process you will probe up to 6 feet deep in likely burial spots. Likely burial spots include a fall line below the last-seen-area, around the victims equipment left on the surface, above and below rocks and trees, depressions, curves, and at the toe of the debris pile. Probing more areas for the victim is more helpful than probing deeper than 6 feet (as studies show that below 6 feet victims rarely survive.
With a Group
If a beacon is used all the better, however, with a group more people are able to spread out (about 50 centimeters from each other, probing in three spots 50 centimeters from the other strike). Searchers line up wrist-to-wrist and probe 3 holes in a line about 50 centimeters apart, move forward one step and repeat. Probing about 6 feet each time.
Choosing the Correct Probe
When it comes to choosing a probe you want to haul into the backcountry there is one element that comes above all of the rest -- length. There are different materials probes can be made of such as; nylon, aluminum, and carbon fiber. Many prefer a carbon fiber probe to reduce weight amongst their gear, but it is the last thing to worry about. Depending on what type of probing you will most likely be doing length changes. For beacon searching with a probe 1.8 to 3 meters long (180 - 300 cm), for spot probing 2 to 3 meters long (200 - 300 cm), and for group probing 3 to 3.5 meters long (300 - 350 cm).
Shoveling would seem to be a fairly basic task, however in the case of an avalanche rescue shoveling is much more intense. Many times you are required to move tons of snow in a race against time if survival is on your mind.
After probing the area and making a strike on the victim, leave the probe in place as a marker and check the burial depth. The burial depth will help in determining the final hole size, and therefore help in determining how far you must start digging from the probe to keep the hole from falling in on itself and preserving the victim's air pocket. Start digging your hole away from the probe by 1.5 x the burial depth. Start by moving snow out the sides of the hole, then once the snow surface rises above your waist move snow out the back of your hole. Attempt to get to the victim's face as soon as possible, then establish an airway by uncovering the victim's head and chest.
Follow the same steps as above, however, two shovelers should begin digging directly downhill of the probe strike, while the rest of your group should begin digging behind them at about 1.5 x the burial depth.