How to Spot an Avalanche Risk: Six Signs of Dangerous Snow

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Over 25 years as a pro-skier Mike Douglas, a.k.a. the "godfather of free skiing," has dropped into the gnarliest backcountry in the world, and can quickly read snow on the ground. "When you are out there enough, you start to feel these little nuances between your feet," Douglas told Men's Journal at the Whistler Film Festival where he was premiering his first feature documentary, Snowman.

The film focuses on Douglas' lifelong friendship with avalanche consultant Kevin Fogolin, who was nearly killed in a helicopter crash while bombing avalanches. "When Kevin called me up I thought, there is no way this actually happened," Douglas says. "This is a Diehard movie."  Over the last three years, Douglas spent hundreds of hours in a helicopter flying through the remote peaks of British Columbia's Toba Valley, filming Fogolin as he dropped explosives to trigger slides and make the area safe for industrial workers in the valley below.

ALSO: Avalanche Safety Rules for Backcountry Skiiers

Flying with Fogolin, Douglas also learned even more about snow, and shared several of the signs of dangerous terrain with us, but emphasized anyone venturing into the backcountry should be thoroughly trained. "Make sure you know how to use your gear, and you've put the time in before you put yourself in a dangerous situation, and when in doubt, don't go. I've lost a lot of friends in the last few years, Shane [McConkey] was just the first of my dead friends. It is frightening. You want to be careful out there." 

1. Beware a dramatic change in weather. 
"Any dramatic weather change will often lead to something to be concerned about," Douglas says. For example today, we went from snow and cold, in two days we had snowy cold, and now we have rain. In my brain, I think that's going to create a weird layer in the snow, that's going to create an ice layer, because it's going to freeze and then snow on top and that's a reactive layer. The same thing can happen if it goes from warm to cold, or very snowy to very sunny in a short time."

2. Look for crystals on the top of the snow.
"If you see those little crystals forming on the top of the snow on a beautiful day — they shine like diamonds — that's a warning sign," Douglas says. "It's called hoarfrost, and what happens is when it then snows again on top of top of that layer, it then creates a very loose layer. We'll get out there and we'll dig a snow profile and we'll look at the layers and we'll do these compaction tests, and look for crystals."

3. Spot the cornices.
Look for those big wind lips that form on the ridges," Douglas says. "Some of the cornices that were blown up in the movie were the size of houses, like 60 feet high and weighing 100 tons. It is incredible how precarious those things are, and sometimes all it takes is the weight of a human to walk along and this thing the size of a house or a bus drops, and you drop with it, and I've seen it happen. It's happened right in front of me before. When you see those you want to stay back and stay away from them."

4. Pay attention to nearby avalanche activity.
"If you see a crack with a slide that came naturally, chances are, if you ski on an aspect similar to that, you could trigger something," Douglas says. "Often when we're out there looking around we'll see a lot of avalanche activity on one or two of the aspects— it could be north and west facing slopes are sliding and south and east are ok. You should look at the different aspects, and don't just worrying about the slope you are on but also for signs of avalanches on those different aspects."

5. Rocky outcrops in large open slopes are a sign.
"Little patches of rocks is often a place where you'll find what are called facets, which are crystals that don't bond together very well and create weakness around the snow," Douglas says. "They were often formed around rocky outcrops in the trees, and generally in open slope. If you ski near those, that could be a place where the slop could let go."

6. Be extra wary of unsupported slopes. 
"[Unsupported slopes] are like putting sand on a picnic table, if you tilt it to a certain angle, eventually the sand is going to all slide off, but if you put a little barrier down at the bottom of the picnic table, it's not going to slide," Douglas says. "Now take that picnic table away, and make that a cliff. If you put the weight up here the whole thing can slide off the end."