“Every year I hear about avalanche deaths and you don’t hear much detail after as to why it happened but the media will give bits of info like “they were experienced” or “they knew the area well”…. As a novice mountain rider who sticks the the main areas of the mountains do I really need to worry or is the real worry only for the ones who head to the virgin and unmarked slopes?”
Ryan R., St Albert, AB
Everyone in the backcountry needs Avalanche Training. Avalanche safety is about choices and timing and without training people often don’t recognize when they are in risky situations, what choices are available and how to read the signs and gather reliable information.
It is not enough for a couple of your group members to have some training. THE ENTIRE PARTY should be well trained. This leads to a cohesive group that can confidently count on their friends to add valuable observations to the group decisions and make sound choices to prevent and minimize any potential accidents.
Many marked snowmobile trails pass through avalanche paths. True, the high traffic areas are typically less
prone to avalanching, but no guarantees. Avalanche hazard is about slope characteristics but a major factor is the season’s weather and therefore each year the snowpack and the hazards are unique.
Mountain experience is very different from avalanche experience. This is a fine point that is sometimes missed. Many responsible sledders are carrying great gear related to survival, first aid, communication, navigation, mechanics as well as avalanche equipment. They are prepared for a variety of backcountry surprises and have likely gained much respect as they have bailed out many less equipped and experienced riders throughout the years.
Years of riding in the backcountry may make a untrained rider familiar with the ‘frequent flyers’; hills that often slide with weather changes. But, this is only one small aspect. Riding with ‘avalanche eyes’ can make visible many Stop signs and Caution signs that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
People can say…”this slope never avalanches” and perhaps in their personal experience they may not have noticed any activity, however the better questions to ask are:
- What is unusual in our weather this season?
- What weather is forecast?
- Will this combination lead to safe or dangerous conditions?
Decisions can be made based on probability and consequence. To do this we need to be able to visualize why the snowpack is weak so that we can understand where these conditions exist.
Reading a Public Avalanche Bulletin (PAB) is key. However it is more than noting the COLOR of the hazard rating. If you are basing your riding decision on ‘orange’ or ‘Considerable’ than you need to ride very conservatively and simply avoid all avalanche terrain because the definition of Considerable means that ‘human triggering is probable’. This is like crossing the street with a blindfold on.
CLICK HERE to view the definitions of the hazard scale.
(This scale should be memorized. Our classroom sessions look at current conditions and run case studies using the PAB and the AVALUATOR to help riders become comfortable with the system. We hand out ‘Danger Scale Cards at our courses and at tradeshows. Keep one handy by the computer or in the truck.)
If you read the TEXT of the bulletin, now all of a sudden you are feeding your mind with the reasoning behind the rating and the EXTENT of the terrain that is affected by the bulletin rating. CHOICES ARE THE KEY TO STAYING SAFE. Get the training and take the blindfold off.
CLICK HERE to view hints for reading the PAB
Considerable, due to ‘wind slabs in the alpine’ may lead to 20% of the terrain that you wanted to play in being high hazard ****HOWEVER****
Considerable, due to ‘basal facets and depth hoar on all aspects and elevations’ may lead to 70% of the terrain that you wanted to play in being high hazard. In these types of conditions you are not even advised to be on the flats below avalanche slopes.
SAME RATING WITH A MAJOR DIFFERENCE IN TRAVEL HABITS AND CAUTION REQUIRED. Please look deeper than the colored rating.
Avalanche courses give you the understanding of the snowpack changes and the appreciation for terrain to make informed decisions. Using a system like the AVALUATOR can help you make these decisions right from home…rather than sitting under the big slope wondering if today is the day.
CLICK HERE to learn more about the AVALUATOR
One of the biggest factors in my mind is consequence. Even a slope with a low likelihood of avalanching may be one to avoid, simply because the consequences of underestimating the probability would be unsurvivable.
- Learn about 8 killer terrain features responsible for most fatalities.
- Learn about Simple, Challenging, and Complex terrain.
- What features are significant in these ratings?
- What type of terrain are you currently riding in?
This can be quite an eye-opener for some.
What I like to say is “you don’t know what you don’t know”. This is why I am constantly taking advantage of any training course that I can afford to attend. Even if I learn one new thing, this may make the difference for me some day. Two people or riding groups can be faced with the same situation, however the outcomes will be entirely different as the reactions and decisions made by each group will be guided by their unique mix of knowledge, experience, resources and group dynamics.
I never want to say ‘if only I would have known that before…..’
When it is too late….it is too late.
For those guys that say that they are ‘experienced’ ask them how many hours of mountain based hands-on formal training that they have received. This will give you an idea of the depth of the info that they may have been exposed to. Then the question becomes…how much of this training have they put into practice? Similar to any learning, if you don’t apply it you lose it.
We are not born with common sense….it is learned. Training gives you more tools in your avalanche safety tool kit and helps you recognize which tool is key for which situation.
Right now I have many past students that I would love to see re-attend a refresher course. Many techniques and resources have changed over the years and one can never participate in enough scenarios. There are always fine points to learn and improve. There are discounts for Refresher Courses for Zac’s Tracs past students.
CLICK HERE to see if you qualify for a discount.
Evening and classroom sessions are really not enough. It is the field session that brings everything together. Actually seeing weak and strong snow, watching failures triggered during snowpack tests, running your group through rescue scenarios, and practicing solid group management habits gives you experiences that you can draw from during each of your riding days.
There is no multi-tool that solves all situations.
Training is one tool. Layer it with the gear, good travel habits, group management techniques, and systematic decision making.
CLICK HERE to view ‘A Dozen More Turns’
This is a free, on-line video that documents a tragic avalanche with highly trained backcountry recreationalists. The story successfully captures the decisions that led to the accident and the survivor’s suggestions on how this could have been prevented.
Yes, even with all the precautions accidents can still happen and this is true in all activities in life. This is no reason to dismiss training and preparedness.
Better your odds and get your riding group trained this season.
CLICK HERE for upcoming courses.