Traveling in Avalanche Terrain – What to Consider

December 25, 2015 Liam Harrap

Is it safe? Should I ski it? Or do I go back?

If you backcountry ski at some point you’ll ask yourself those questions. In many situations, they can be difficult to answer. In the end, it’ll come down to how you manage risk.

Up there? Oh goodness. I don’t think I’ve had a large enough breakfast yet for that amount of excitement | Photo Liam Harrap
Up there? Oh goodness. I don’t think I’ve had a large enough breakfast yet for that amount of excitement | Photo Liam Harrap

Risk is the chance of success against the cost of loss. What’s the benefit and gain vs the hazard and danger. When I access a slope, I ask myself: Is it worth it? What do I hope to get out of this? What might I lose? And most importantly, Will it make me late for dinner? I try to answer by relying on my past 20 years of skiing experience, what information I know about the current snow pack, who I’m skiing with, and ultimately if I’m comfortable with the situation. If not, I’ll turn around and go another way. Always be prepared to turn back and retreat, it may save your life.

While it’s impossible to completely eliminate risk, we can lower it through good decision making and experience. Take an avalanche course, such as Avalanche Safety Training 1 or 2. Both courses go over travelling safely in avalanche terrain, taking necessary precautions, and how to use important equipment if the worst should happen. Travel with people more experienced than yourself so you can learn and make better decisions in the future.

Where do I go now? | Photo Brodie Kueber
Uh oh. Perhaps I went the wrong way | Photo Brodie Kueber
What you need for traveling in avalanche country: a collapsible shovel, probe, and beacon. With good practice, you should be able to find your partner buried in an avalanche using this equipment | Liam Harrap
What you need for traveling in avalanche country: a collapsible shovel, probe, and beacon. With good practice, you should be able to find your partner buried in an avalanche using this equipment | Liam Harrap

Try to collect as much information about the snowpack and stability before heading out. Avalanche Canada is a great resource, which collects information on snow stability from various professionals throughout Canada. Even us, Last Frontier Heliskiing, sends them our snow-pack information, so they can compile all reports together and release an avalanche bulletin. Thus the public can be better informed and make safer decisions.

l Liam Harrap
Here’s an avalanche forecast from this year. Looking pretty good! | Liam Harrap 

Keep track of the snow-pack during the entire season, taking note of weak layers that  become a concern. Stability is about layering and load. Hot, cold, rain, and snow crystals all affect it.

Surface Hoar Frost from November in the Rockies. This layer can cause problems later on in the season, as snow builds on top of this weak layer that may act similarly to marbles | Photo Mikey Stevenson
Surface Hoar Frost from November in the Canadian Rockies. This layer may cause problems later on in the season as snow builds on top. This weakness may act similarly to marbles | Photo Mikey Stevenson
A closer look at surface hoar frost l Jeffrey Johns
A closer look at the surface hoar frost. Remember remember the hoar frost of November | Jeffrey Johns

Pay attention to signs on the ski uptrack, like the snow-pack collapsing with a “whoomph” noise (indicating instability as it hasn’t settled yet), sloughing between zig-zags, and signs of natural or human avalanches. Good route finding and navigation is important. Look at the weather forecast to see how the day is shaping up and whether to expect any storms, which may also affect stability or route finding.

Doing a tap test to check snow stability and see where the weak layers are and how much force is required to have them fail | Photo Liam Harrap
Doing a tap test to check snow stability, see where the weak layers are and how much force is required to have them fail | Photo Liam Harrap
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Consulting the map, talking about the hazards, and making a plan for the day | Liam Harrap
Weather is an important consideration when trying to mitigate risk | Photo Liam Harrap
Trying to navigate in a storm can be a risky business | Photo Liam Harrap
A beard is always good protection against the elements | Liam Harrap
A beard is always good protection against the elements | Liam Harrap

Snow science is full of uncertainty, and is a game of testing and waiting. When something goes wrong, learn from it. It’s important to voice you concern, even if you’re not the most experienced. Your opinion matters. Ski Safe Guys and Girls!