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Avalanches - A Deadly Season

The winter of 2007-08 is shaping up as one of the more deadly avalanche seasons in Washington’s history. Already nine people have died, statewide, in avalanches and our current conditions will probably see that statistic worsening.

 

Several natural factors have contributed to the problem. Most notably, we’ve simply been getting crazy amounts of snow near the Cascade crest – this past month has seen some of the heaviest snowfalls in 60 years. Furthermore, temperatures have remained quite cold so the big dumps haven’t stabilized as quickly as they sometimes do in the maritime climate of the Cascades. This has left the upper layers (amounting to several feet of snow) trickier to predict and easier to trigger.

 

There is also a lingering instability deep in the snowpack. The rain crust that formed near the ground in late November sat exposed to the cold sky for over a week and, in many places, this crust was coated with a sizable layer of surface hoar. Once covered, this surface hoar and the crust beneath it have created a ground-level problem that can set the whole snowpack moving. Given the amount of snow we’ve received this year, the thought of having it all in motion is terrifying – it will also be devastating to anything (like a forest) in its way.

 

Get caught in the first kind of avalanche (surface accumulations) and you’ve got a chance of survival. Get caught in an avalanche that steps down and springs the whole snowpack and you ‘might’  have a few seconds to think about family, friends, girlfriends, spouses, insurance policies, stupidity, and whether a few powder turns justified getting atomized. ‘Might’ is the operative word because rather than thinking about things that matter, you’ll probably be thinking, ‘Ahhhhhh.’  At least this kind of visceral panic is what has seized my brain when small slides have sent me on short rides.

 

Human factors are also at work in the number of avalanche fatalities we’re seeing this winter. Greater numbers of people, fueled by striking magazine pictures and wow-inspiring ski films, are seeking backcountry goods to plunder. Many of the newcomers are clueless about how to evaluate the avalanche hazard, manage avalanche terrain, or minimize exposure. Some are also cavalier about not wearing avalanche beacons, or about carrying shovels and probes. Having come from the Alpine-skiing world where avalanche hazard is controlled, they are ready to jump on any deep and steep snow and scribe tracks Warren Miller will want to film.

 

To help our own locals ski safe, we’ll be covering more avalanche material this winter like the Probe Story we ran recently. Avalanche shovels are on deck and we’ll give you a shovelful of recommendations to ponder in the next day or two.

 

Of course avalanche avoidance is the surest way to live long – or at least the surest way to die differently than getting broken up by sliding snow and then suffocating slowly under a cold, white blanket. Here’s a few easy ways to avoid the hazard. First, use the Northwest Avalanche Center’s reports (see our link in the Snow and Ski Reports matrix) to gather information about what you’re up against any given weekend.

 

If the hazard is ‘considerable,’ ‘high,’ or ‘extreme’ and if you lack the skill to evaluate the backcountry snowpack yourself, adjust your plans. Rather than skiing the steep and deep:

  • Go Alpine or Nordic skiing at a resort.
  • Tour a Forest Service road in flatter country on cross-country touring skis.
  • Work on the ‘Honey Do’ list and collect a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for another weekend.
  • Choose an easy tour on mellow ground (slopes less than 20 or 25 degrees steep). Check our online guidebooks for ideas.
  • Ski the forests (in a place where avalanches from above won’t blast through).
  • Go rock climbing or ice climbing at Vantage.
  • Go hiking or snowshoeing at Ancient Lake.
  • Ski low-lying areas in the foothills right above Leavenworth and/or Wenatchee. There’s often a window when the high-elevation hazard is bad yet the foothills have adequate snow to ski and low slide hazard.
  • Try a really radical diversion like bowling.

 

Flexibility underlies all these suggestions. Learn to enjoy Alpine, Nordic, and backcountry skiing and you can let the conditions of the day dictate the type of skiing you pursue. Patience is also key. Good days of backcountry skiing with quality snow and relatively safe conditions will come. But you can’t rush them. What you can rush is your untimely demise.