Minimise your avalanche risk! Avalanche forecaster Penny Goddard offers some simple tips to raise your awareness and help keep you safer
Identifying avalanche terrainAvalanches usually occur in the same places, time after time. This means that just by selecting the right terrain, it’s relatively simple to keep out of harm’s way. You can gauge the avalanche potential of a slope by assessing the slope angle and shape of the terrain.
- Most avalanches occur on slopes of about 30-45 degrees
- Avalanches are possible on slopes of 15-60 degrees
- Wind-loaded slopes (those facing away from the wind and full of wind-blown snow) are often primed for avalanches. These can look ‘fat’, smooth and rounded
- Convex-shaped slopes (roll-overs) are particularly sensitive to avalanching, due to increased tension on the snowpack
- Thin snowpack areas near rocks are also common trigger points
Terrain trapsA terrain trap is any feature which would increase the consequences of an avalanche. Examples include cliffs, gullies (where snow will pile up deeply), lakes, rivers, rocks and steep faces. Even a very small avalanche can prove deadly in combination with a terrain trap. Always think about the consequences of an avalanche as you travel through the mountains. Be constantly prepared to adjust your route to reduce your exposure.
Low risk terrainIf you have any doubt about the stability of the snow, choose terrain which has a low risk of avalanches. Low risk terrain includes:
- Low angled slopes, well away from avalanche slopes above
- Ridge tops
- Heavily forested terrain
- Windward slopes are often preferable
- If you are crossing through avalanche terrain, go one at a time from one island of safety (low-risk terrain spot) to another.
Avoid an avalanche
- Get trained up: take a course
- Check the backcountry avalanche advisory at avalanche.net.nz
- Plan your trip according to conditions and be prepared to change your route
- Know your limits and that of your group
- If in doubt, back off
- Watch your partners go one at a time across or under any suspect slopes
- Only regroup in safe spots, like ridge tops and flat ground well away from slopes above
- Be prepared with rescue equipment and skills
- As well as checking the avalanche advisory for the general outlook, take note of any signs of changing snow and weather conditions. Avalanche conditions will vary from place to place and will also change through time according to the influence of the weather. Sometimes conditions can change quickly, within hours.
Survive an avalancheMany people are killed by traumatic injuries during avalanches, so there is no guarantee that rescue equipment will save your life. Avoidance is by far the best strategy. However, if you do get caught, try the following. Yell out so your friends know to watch you If using an airbag, deploy it Do whatever you can to get out of the avalanche – grab, kick, swim Create an air pocket in front of your face before the avalanche stops
Gear checklistAvalanche essentials: the Big Three
- Avalanche transceiver – for finding your buried companions
- Probe – to pinpoint their location before you dig
- Shovel – for digging!
- Avalanche airbag pack – to help keep you on top of an avalanche
- Helmet – to protect your head
- Means of communication – a PLB or satellite phone to call for outside help
How to extract your buddy from an avalanche[caption id="attachment_6360" align="aligncenter" width="1280"] Backcountry skiers climb a safe ridge next to a slope which has just avalanched – if in doubt about the route, speak up[/caption] Speed is of the essence in avalanche rescue. Once buried under the snow, you have precious little time up your sleeve. Avalanche rescue gear can greatly increase survival chances for you and your buddies by speeding up the rescue. But in order to be fast in the real situation, you have to practise, practise, practise! Here are a few basics on using the Big Three. These skills are best learned on an avalanche course. Transceiver Check everybody’s transceiver has good battery strength, is switched on and operates in send and search modes before you go into the backcountry. In an avalanche rescue:
- Watch the victim(s) to determine their last seen point
- Appoint a leader (or just take charge)
- Check for further risk: is it safe to go onto the avalanche site?