An Avalanche Expert’s Tips on Spring Backcountry Safety

Know before you go. Photo: Courtesy of Rebekah Stevens/Park City Powder Cats

Spring has begun, but that doesn’t mean that the hazards of winter weather are done. Far from it, since the weather is rapidly changing with overnight cooling and longer warmer days – avalanche risks most certainly can rise.

Of course all risk revolves around the snow pack. This season’s snowfall for western U.S. states has been a bit thin, making conditions a little spicy with the potential for some heavy spring storms. We spoke with avalanche forecaster Craig Gordon of the Utah Avalanche Center about staying safe in the backcountry this spring.

Here are his tips:

There’s Always Tomorrow

Perfect turns need perfect conditions. Photo: Courtesy of Craig Gordon

Two things are for certain, the snowpack is always complicated no matter where you go and the mountains aren’t going anywhere.

“Spring is typically a time when we have a deep stable snowpack, we think about big lines and going after big objectives and generally having predicable avalanche conditions,” Gordon tells ASN. “However this year we are going to have to change our mindset and think the same way the snow pack is thinking. That is in areas that have remained below average this year, now that we are starting to stack storms on top, that snowpack will react just like a weak mid-winter snowpack.

“So we gotta change gears and we might want to tone our objectives down this spring and remember, the mountains will always be there next year or the year after, and that will be the time to bag some big peaks when the stability is more predictable.”

Know Before You Go

Avalanche professionals like Gordon work really hard everyday studying the snowpack in their areas. Reading all that they report will not only make you more informed, but help you start comprehending avalanche forecasts.

“Long before planning your trip make sure to check in with your local avalanche center to get the latest up to date advisories for the terrain that you are traveling in,” says Gordon. “But tracking the zone that you are going to ride in shouldn’t be a last minute thing that happens the night before.

“It should be an ongoing history since the beginning of the season. It is like opening up a novel in the middle, you don’t know who the characters are, you don’t who the good guys or the bad guys are, so look the area from the beginning of the season so you can track the trends that have happened in the past, the current trends and what that projected forecast looks like.

“Remember, 1/4 of us are killed by trauma when we trigger a large avalanche. So avoidance is the big ticket item.”

Buddies and Gear

The Barryvox S is one of the most advanced and the most complex beacons on the market with four modes. Photo: Kate Erwin

Not all avalanche rescue gear works the same. For example, some beacons can be switched from digital to analog like the advanced Barryvox S by Mammut. Other beacons like the Pieps Mirco are automatically sending a signal when put in its holster. So it is critical to get to know your gear intimately.

“Make sure to be traveling with experienced partners who are carrying and know how to use all the right gear, beacons, shovels, probes and for some an airbag,” Gordon explains. “If we gotta use, that means the accident has already happened. When you are traveling in avalanche terrain, all your rescue gear needs to be on your body. Especially when you strip down in hot springtime weather, you still need to have your avalanche beacon close to your chest underneath a layer of clothing.”

Practice Your Skills

Knowing your snow can help you make better educated decisions. Photo: Courtesy of Utah Avalanche Center

The first thing you can do is take your American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Avi courses and AST courses (Avalanche Skills Training AST in Canada.)

There are typically more courses offered in the beginning of winter than at the end of the season. No matter what month you are skiing, it is imperative to practice with your avalanche companion rescue equipment inside and out, because people do not rise to the occasion in an emergency, they default to the lowest level of their training.

“Remember that your avalanche rescue skills are a perishable commodity, that means you gotta practice and you gotta practice often,” Gordon tells ASN. “Not only with your partners on the days you ride, but on your down days.

“Visit a beacon basin or a beacon training center near you and make sure that you are well-versed in using all of your gear. While most avalanche awareness courses are given in the beginning and mid-portions of the season, it is never too late to get an avy education under your belt.

“So I encourage anybody to sign up for a basic avy awareness class, a refresher class or one of the higher-learning opportunities near you.”

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