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Know it All

Features
posted: 12/14/2000

Here are some ways to mitigate your risk in the backcountry.

> Take an avalanche course through the American Association of Avalanche Professionals. Visit www.avalanche.org to find a course near you.

> Call the local avalanche and mountain-weather advisory before heading out. They can tell you about the relative stability of the snowpack and the ways it may change throughout the day.

> When unsure about the snowpack, avoid slopes ranging from 30 to 45 degrees. Roughly 90 percent of all avalanches happen on these pitches.

> Wait a couple days or longer after big storms. This lets the new snow settle and bond with the old snow beneath it. Keep in mind that certain slopes can remain unstable for weeks or even months midwinter¿but waiting still helps.

> Heed obvious warning signs. Look for recent avalanche activity and for cracks that shoot out from underfoot. Listen for loud whoompfing sounds caused by collapsing snowpack and for hollow drumlike sounds that reveal the presence of space or soft snow under a harder slab. When warning signs abound, go home.

> Be aware of how the weather is affecting the snowpack. Sun, wind, snow, and temperature changes can all contribute to instability. Be especially wary of blowing snow. If there's a rooster tail of snow blowing off the mountaintop, make your turns on the windward side of the ridge.

> Always "think avalanche." It takes four ingredients to make a slab avalanche: a slab (a cohesive layer of snow); beneath the slab, a layer weak enough to shear under the weight of a person; a sufficiently steep slope; and a trigger. "Think of yourself as the trigger," says avalanche-safety expert Dale Atkins. "To travel safely in the backcountry, you need to constantly ask yourself whether the other three ingredients are present." Snow-stability tests (taught during a Level I AAAP course) can help you identify weak layers and slabs.

> Use safe-travel techniques. Always ski down a slope one at a time. Spread far apart when crossing slopes. And think about where you will escape to, if the snow does start moving.

> Make your own decisions. "Just because someone else has skied a suspect avalanche slope doesn't mean you have to," says Atkins. "In many accidents it is the second, fifth, or maybe even 10th skier who triggers the avalanche." Be especially wary near ski areas, where skiers often assume the snow to be safe.

> Carry the right gear, including an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, and probe poles. "Practice using your transceiver, and make sure your friends practice using theirs, because they're the ones who will have to save you," says Atkins. However, don't count on the beacon saving your life¿since 1968, avalanche transceivers have been used to locate 94 people; 58 of them died.

> Carry a map and compass and know how to use them. Good navigation skills are key to avoiding a potential avalanche. They can also help you make it home in whiteout conditions.

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