Avalanches are the No. 1 cause of death by natural disaster in Washington, so it pays to know the risks and signs of danger.
FOR MANY YEARS, my way of dealing with potential avalanche danger was to avoid all circumstances where there could be any. I spent my snow time on groomed trails, where avalanche danger is managed by the pros. I missed snowshoeing, and preferred the safe approach.
But after attending an avalanche-awareness seminar at The Mountaineers’ Seattle program center, I realized my lack of education and understanding of risks was keeping me from fully embracing fun in the snow. (Full disclosure: I published two books with Mountaineers Books.)
The two-hour introduction was the beginning of avalanche awareness rather than a comprehensive course. It was useful and eye-opening.
Northwest Avalanche Center
Loren McWethy teaches avalanche-awareness courses for the Northwest Avalanche Center. Skiers, boarders, snowmobilers and more rely on this resource for information about playing outdoors in the winter. If you don’t, you should.
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First, you have to know the consequences of getting caught in an avalanche. McWethy did not dance around the dangers — he showed us a video in which an avalanche buried the skier with the camera. That skier luckily had a prepared group who dug him out, one key to being smart about avalanches.
We learned about the risks for different types of sports (snowmobilers have the highest number of fatalities, followed by backcountry skiers), the two types of avalanches (loose snow and slab), and the fact that two-thirds of avalanche deaths are from asphyxiation. Avalanches are the No. 1 cause of death by natural disaster in Washington, he said.
Thankfully, McWethy didn’t linger on the stats. We learned the three things that cause avalanches: terrain, triggers and unstable snow. You need all three for an avalanche.
Humans are triggers, putting stress on the snow. The two other factors you can’t control. We learned causes for unstable snowpack: wind, a really fast snowfall (12 inches or more in 24 hours is a red flag and elevates risk), and rain or quick temperature changes, among others. The snowpack needs time to adjust, he said.
In avalanche courses, you can learn how to look for unstable snow. You also can use the Northwest Avalanche Center website, which monitors the snowpack, to find out about conditions.
You also need to pay attention to terrain. Avalanches happen on 30- to 45-degree slopes. If the slope is less than that, it’s not steep enough for snow to slide. If it’s higher, the snow slides constantly, McWethy said. Thirty to 45 degrees is also the “fun zone” for skiing, he said.
Paying attention to terrain and snow conditions is important, McWethy said. Granite Mountain, off Interstate 90, is a popular summer hike and is so close to Seattle, it also draws people in the winter. The summer hiking trail crosses multiple avalanche pathways, and McWethy advised skiing there only with great caution.
McWethy talked about other ways to spot avalanche paths, such as vegetation, and said to keep an eye out for terrain traps like gullies, where you could get buried even deeper. Another key to prevention is traveling with a group that communicates well. Does everyone have the same goals? Does everyone have training and equipment? Is everyone doing research on the terrain and snow? Is everyone willing to decide risk tolerance as a group?
McWethy pointed out the gear needed (including a probe, an avalanche beacon and a shovel), and training on how to use it. But he said if you’re buried 4 or 5 feet under the snow, your group will have to shovel 1 to 1½ tons of snow to get you out. His message? Don’t get caught by an avalanche.
I now know enough to understand when avalanche risk is low, and to head out and have fun. If I want to play in steeper backcountry? My next step is more training.