Wednesday, November 16, 2011

“Avalanche kills professional skier”

The above headline has been on heavy rotation in our local media the last few days. The victim was a professional “extreme sport” athlete, cliff-jump world record holder and Warren Miller film star. He was a seasoned, trained, professional athlete. This fatal accident is a tragic reminder of how potentially dangerous backcountry skiing, and side-country skiing at resorts can be.

Avalanches claim an average of 25 lives each year in the United States. No backcountry traveler should head out without the proper training AND safety gear.

Get the Training…

Your first step: brush up on the basics; attend a credited avalanche safety course affiliated with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (www.

Carry the Right Gear...

Carrying the proper gear is essential for safe, responsible backcountry travel. Used properly, these tools can help you forecast stability in the snowpack, or rescue those who become victims of an avalanche. Remember, there is often no time to go get help, therefore, the responsibility for rescue falls upon the touring party itself. The following is a list of recommended gear for the backcountry traveler:

Must Have Snow Safety Gear:

Avalanche Beacon: Avalanche beacons (also called transceivers) have proven to be the only reliable way to find a buried victim in time to save their life. Each person should wear a transmitting beacon. Beacons are meant to be worn UNDER your jacket, never in your pack. If someone is buried, the surviving members turn their beacons to receive allowing them to quickly find the buried victim. Several brands of avalanche beacons are available, and all work on the same frequency. The technologies vary from analog to 100% digital, with some operating in both digital and analog. Each brand and technology (digital or analog) has its pros and cons, so research is recommended before making a purchase. More importantly, it is essential that you practice regularly with your beacon.

Avalanche Probe: Your avalanche beacon will help you pin-point the location of your buried victim; digging in dense avalanche debris is time-consuming, so an exact depth or location is vital. This is where probes come in. Probes come in lengths of 182cm for recreational users and up to 300cm for avy pro’s, with 240cm being a popular recreational length. Built of aluminum or carbon tubing, probe assemblies use a screw lock or quick clamp to secure the sections into place. Probe assembly is like tent poles, toss the sections out on the ground and shake the pole sections while pulling the tension cable at the top and locking. As with your beacon…. practice, practice, practice!

Avalanche Shovel: Every member of your group should carry a metal blade shovel, to both dig out a buried victim (avalanche debris is dense and hard) and in digging snow pits to assess the snowpack’s stability. Most avy shovels are constructed from lightweight materials such as aluminum or a high strength plastic. Many feature flat serrated blades and telescoping handles with nesting snow saws. These features are ideal for moving large volumes of snow, cutting through dense hard pack, and making clean cuts for a snow pit.

Backpack: A lightweight, comfortable pack is essential for carrying your backcountry gear. Daypacks are available to carry just the basics like your shovel and probes, while multiday packs are designed to carry larger volumes of gear. Good quality packs will have a waist and sternum strap to keep the load stable and secure. Hydration packs offer the bonus of preventing dehydration which can lead to mental impairment and hypothermia.

Snow Study Equipment

Slope Meter: Most people misjudge slope angles; a precise angle measurement can spell the difference between disaster and FUN. The steepness of a slope is critical in determining whether a certain slope will slide. Determining slope angles is one of the most basic and crucial skills in avalanche assessment. A slope meter is a must for people who are just learning to judge slope angles as well as the pro who needs to regularly confirm slope angles.

Snow Saw: Snow pit tests are essential in determining slope snowpack stability. Snow saws allow you to easily and quickly isolate columns when doing snow profiles. Most Snow saws have an aggressive tooth pattern for managing even the hardest snow, and making them an essential tool for shelter building as well. Several models of snow saws are available, including those that fold or collapse, as well as models which nest inside your shovels handle.

Snow Study Kit: To understand snow conditions and assess avalanche risk, backcountry travelers need to take the time to evaluate the snowpack. Snow study kits provide the “trained” backcountry traveler the necessary tools to help make those assessments. These kits typically contain a slope meter, thermometer, snow crystal card, magnifier, ruler and carry-all pouch.

Check out our selection of quality Snow safety Gear and survival information at