by Dave Enright
This article was originally published on the Evergreen Outdoor Center blog on October 15, 2005.
Snow Stability & Weather Conditions
– In most avalanche-related accidents, people fail to recognize unstable snow conditions or to heed the warning signs. These range from obvious indications such as recent fresh avalanches, to hard-to-find weak layers in the snowpack. (Jamison and Geldsetzer, 1996)
– Get into the snow and see what is happening. Dig pits, look for weak layers and do tests to determine how weak these layers are. This takes knowledge and practice and should be learned from an experienced snow professional, as tests performed incorrectly can give wrong or misleading information.
– Make mental and physical notes of avalanche activity and weather conditions that directly relate to slope stability.
– Ask other more experienced people or other groups what they have been seeing out there. Many foreigners may have a poor image of ski patrol in Japan, but they are out there in the mountains every day and have – most often – a better idea of stability than you may think.
– Sudden changes in weather can produce sudden changes in snow stability. i.e., heavy snow fall, solar exposure, rain, rapid change in temperature, heating and cooling, and strong wind.
– Whiteouts due to snow, wind or fog can cause poor decisions, poor hazard evaluation or poor route finding. Weather needs to be constantly re-evaluated throughout the day.
Safety & Search and Rescue
There are many things that can increase safety and reduce the need for rescue from an unwanted avalanche burial. Many of these are already noted above. Here are some more things to practice and think about.
- Half the number of buried avalanche victims die within half an hour, and chance of survival decreases greatly if the accident party has to get help from outside. (CAA statistics).
- Transceivers must be carried and turned on at all times when riding off piste or out of the resort area, and users must know how to use them in the event of an avalanche accident.
- Equipment must be easily discarded or exited if escape from an avalanche is not possible. i.e. ski poles (straps off), skis (restraining devices undone), heavy packs (straps unclipped) and snowboard (releasable bindings).
- One at a time on or crossing suspect slopes in avalanche terrain or when moving in unavoidable terrain trap areas. Set spotters.
- Warm and protective clothing on and done up, with goggles on in avalanche terrain.
- Everyone should carry a shovel, probe, water, spare food, extra warm clothes, a light and a whistle.
- Practice search and rescue scenarios often. Get good with your beacon.
- Common sense is still the best prevention against accidents.
Avalanche Awareness Courses
If you are interested in exploring the Japan backcountry you may want to think about enrolling in an Avalanche Skills Training Course. These courses will provide you – and more importantly your friends – with a base of knowledge and skills that may just save lives out there. The easiest way to be SAFE, just like with sexual diseases, is to abstain….. which we all know is virtually impossible! So that is why we learn more, take precautions and stay with partners whose history we know, to reduce risks. Even those with years of riding experience will be amazed by what they did not know and frightened to think of all the times when sheer luck and stable slopes were all that got them through unscathed. We have all had these days yet there is no substitute for knowledge, skill and experience to reduce the reliance on luck, and putting more reliance on well informed decisions. Ignorance is bliss, until you miss.
Play it safe out there in the Japan backcountry and have a great winter, with great friends and big smiles.
Dave Enright (Evergreen Outdoor Center)