Navigating Avalanche Terrain

navigating avalanche terrain

By Jonathon Spitzer

The snow has fallen in many parts of the country, and back country skiing and riding has awakened from its summer slumber. With snow coverage conditions improving, we must remember to be safe. Avalanche danger will rise and fall through-out the season as the snowpack varies. One day the conditions can be stable, while the next day they may be unsafe. In just a quick instance the snowpack can change. One thing that remains constant is the mountainous terrain we choose to travel through. As an IFMGA certified guide and heli-ski guide in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, planning is an integral part of my life. Whether planning for an expedition ski trip, a heli-skiing day or a backcountry tour, the overall process is very similar. Here are some quick tips on navigating avalanche terrain to help aid your backcountry experience.

Plan ahead with a tour plan:

Get a map for the area of your future backcountry destination. Take time before you leave the comfort of your house to study the terrain on the map. Plan your ski runs and also take notice on the map where avalanche paths exist. Outline a safe ascent route to your objective, as well as an ideal way to descend. Be sure you have alternative descent routes. Doing this, will insure you have safe options. Don’t forget you can also go down the way you came up!

Google Earth

This is a great tool for looking at avalanche terrain, possible ski lines, and future adventures around the world. Instead of reading the comic’s, check out the terrain you plan to ski/ride on Google Earth. You’ll be surprised by how useful this tool is!

Be Flexible

Conditions are constantly changing. The stable deep powder snow you had yesterday may no longer exist. Rapid winds, increased temperatures, and other factors can quickly transform the snowpack. Be willing to change your tour plan as conditions might dictate.

Staying high in the terrain

Staying high in the terrain means to travel on ridge lines and broad shoulders. This travel technique is preferable while ascending uphill. These terrain features should be your preferred line of ascent. Doing this might add an additional 10 minutes to your tour, but it allows for better views of scenery, possible ski lines, and a safer ascent. Try to minimize unnecessary travel in avalanche terrain while ascending.

Avoid terrain traps

Nasty, deadly, and unnecessary. A terrain trap is defined as a terrain feature that can increase the consequences of being caught in an avalanche. Avoid gullies, creek beds, drainages, and abrupt slope transitions where avalanche debris can pile up deeply. Even the small avalanches can leave a victim buried deep in a terrain trap. The gladed slopes that are so fun on a powder day, could also end up being a terrain trap if you are pushed into the trees during an avalanche. A snow slope above trees, crevasse fields, and/or cliffs can also be dangerous. An avalanche course is a great way to learn, practice, and execute these skills. Plan ahead, prepare, and get after it!

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