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Trail Talk: Improve Your Avalanche Awareness

Posted by Anna Roth at Dec 03, 2013 01:35 PM |
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Do you know how to spot and assess avalanche danger? We talked to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center for some tips for staying safe in you plan to hike or snowshoe in avalanche terrain this season.

Do you know how to spot avalanche danger when snow covers a trail? We asked the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center's avalanche meteorologist Dennis D'Amico for some tips for those of you headed into the backcountry this season. See what he has to say before you head out on your next hike or snowshoe, and consider taking one of the upcoming avalanche safety awareness classes listed below.

WTA: How common are avalanches in Washington?

Dennis D'Amico: Very common; we have avalanches every winter and they can occur in the highest elevations any time of year given the right conditions. The type of avalanches differ in different snow climates.

The Cascades and Olympics have a maritime snow climate, meaning we have a deeper and warmer snowpack. This produces the greatest avalanche danger during and immediately following our intense storm cycles that come with fluctuating snow levels, periods of heavy snow and even rain at times.

This is a generalization of a maritime snowpack, and other avalanche problems do occur in our region.

How can someone spot an area that might slide easily?

The main giveaway is slope angle. Slopes between 30-45 degrees are the most likely to slide. A slope angle of 38 degrees is the prime avalanche slope angle.

If you see an avalanche path that cuts through dense trees at lower elevations, that's a definite sign that the slope has produced avalanches in the past. Depending on how new the vegetation is in the path -- no trees, saplings, or young trees -- you can take an educated guess at the last time there was a major slide.

slab avalanche. photo by Adam L
A slab avalanche ready to slide. Photo by AdamL

If someone finds themselves in the path of an avalanche, what can they do to improve their chances of survival?

If your group hikes across an avalanche path, cross one at a time, leaving enough space that only one person is exposed to avalanche risk at a time.

If you are caught in an avalanche, try to cut away to the edge of the avalanche and dig into the bed surface. You want to let most of the avalanche pass by you; ending up in the toe of an avalanche will mean a deeper burial and a lower chance of survival.

If you can maintain an airspace during burial, your chances of survival will increase. But all of this advice is incredibly tough to implement if you are caught in a serious avalanche.

Where are the most severe avalanches in Washington?

That's a difficult question -- avalanches occur over a wide range of elevations throughout the mountains in Washington. Small avalanches can still kill people depending on the terrain. Some of the largest avalanches can occur high on the volcanoes in glaciated terrain.

Do you have any basic safety tips for hikers in avalanche terrain during winter?

Yes! Have the right gear: Avalanche Transceiver (beacon), shovel, probe and consider the new avalanche airbag packs.

Check the avalanche and mountain weather forecast from the Northwest Avalanche Center before heading out. Take time to check out the website and understand our new avalanche forecasts.

Take a free avalanche class. Some free upcoming classes are listed above, or check our calendar of events).

Finally -- be aware of your surroundings and remember a forecast is only the first step to being safe in avalanche terrain. Once you step into the backcountry, you are your own avalanche forecaster.

More winter skills resources



Eastern Washington

Is there any classes in Eastern Washington? I have been interested in snow shoeing but would like to be educated before I go.

Posted by:

greenhiker on Dec 04, 2013 01:11 PM

Have fun!

Not sure where you are in Eastern Washington, but the REI in Spokane holds snowshoeing basics classes about once a month:

Spokane City Parks and Rec may also have some classes: https://online.activecommun[…]p?ProcessWait=N&aid=128

Posted by:

"Loren Drummond" on Dec 04, 2013 01:11 PM