What You Need to Know About Avalanche Safety in the Backcountry

DENVER — This winter, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers seeking a reprieve from the stresses of the pandemic by heading into the backcountry — terrain that, unlike ski resorts, isn’t patrolled or mitigated for avalanches — have been dealt yet another blow from nature: one of the most dangerous snowpacks in years.

The Salt Lake and Uintas regions on the Utah Avalanche Center’s map of avalanche risk were covered in black this week, a rare indication of “extreme” danger. Natural and human-triggered avalanches were “certain” over the next several days, the center warned on Instagram.

Two snowmobilers were caught in an avalanche on Tuesday in Northern Colorado; one was fully buried and died. On Sunday, two people in Colorado were killed in separate avalanches, the same day a Montana man was pulled into the trees by an avalanche near Big Sky and later died from his injuries. Four skiers were killed in an avalanche in Utah on Feb. 6 — the deadliest avalanche in the United States since 2014.

So far this season, 26 people have died in avalanches in the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center; the total number of fatalities for the entirety of last season was 23.

“Some of our retired forecasters, they’ve never seen a snowpack so weak across Utah,” said Chad Brackelsberg, executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center.

Heavy snowfall early in the season was followed by a long dry spell, leaving a “sugary” base of weak snow, he said. Recent snowstorms have dumped feet of powder — attractive to those looking to get out into the backcountry — on top of that weak foundation.

Mr. Brackelsberg said that even the most experienced backcountry adventurers could get caught in a fatal avalanche, especially this season, with conditions that are “hard to predict.”

“No matter what your experience level is, it’s very easy to get caught off guard,” he said.

Though many of those killed in the avalanches were experienced backcountry skiers, novices have been heading into the backcountry as well. Tom Wisniewski, an employee at Christy Sports in Denver, said backcountry skis had been flying off the shelves during the pandemic — but many buyers were unaware that they should be supplementing their purchases with basic avalanche safety equipment or avalanche courses.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re heading into the backcountry.

Many avalanche centers offer virtual educational programs, such as the Utah center’s Know Before You Go online modules. But online programs are only “introductory knowledge and skills refreshers,” Mr. Brackelsberg said.

“They’re not a substitute for an on-snow class, where you can physically see the snow structure,” he added.

In-person avalanche classes, such as those using curriculum from the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education, teach people how to identify potential hazards in the backcountry — like a weak snowpack — and how to recognize avalanche terrain, among other skills. The institute maintains a list of the classes, which are mostly provided by private outdoor guide companies.

Avalanche safety experts agree that anyone going into the backcountry should carry a shovel, a beacon and a probe. A beacon, which emits a radio signal and can pick up signals from other beacons, allows other people to find you, should you be caught in an avalanche, and allows you to do the same for others. A collapsible metal probe can be used to poke through the snow to locate someone buried, who can then be dug out with a shovel.

Avalanche bags, another survival tool, deploy like large airbags, making it possible to float above snow and debris. They can be powered electronically or by a canister of compressed air.

But simply having the right gear isn’t enough to head into the backcountry safely. In addition to taking an avalanche course, “practicing and training on your own,” Mr. Brackelsberg said, “is critical.”

That includes learning how to use a beacon, a shovel and a probe, as well as how to deploy an avalanche bag. A “beacon training park” created last year in the White River National Forest near Minturn, Colo., has beacons buried in the snow that can be turned on by a control panel, allowing trainees to simulate searching for someone with a beacon.

Before heading into the backcountry, Mr. Brackelsberg said, it’s important to make sure it’s “the right day to go out,” depending on personal skill level and current conditions.

People should check the local avalanche forecasts every day — not just the days they plan to go into the backcountry — to become familiar with avalanche conditions in the area, he said. That will help inform whether to go into the backcountry, to ski inbounds at a resort or to just stay home.

Mr. Brackelsberg said that the Utah Avalanche Center had seen an “unprecedented” level of activity on its website, which posts daily forecasts. Even though the center tripled its website’s capacity this season, the site was down on Tuesday (it also sent avalanche warnings on social media). He said the level of activity on the site was a good sign that people were informing themselves of avalanche risk.

Heavy snowfall early in the season was followed by a long dry spell, leaving a “sugary” base of weak snow, he said. Recent snowstorms have dumped feet of powder — attractive to those looking to get out into the backcountry — on top of that weak foundation.

Mr. Brackelsberg said that even the most experienced backcountry adventurers could get caught in a fatal avalanche, especially this season, with conditions that are “hard to predict.”

“No matter what your experience level is, it’s very easy to get caught off guard,” he said.

Though many of those killed in the avalanches were experienced backcountry skiers, novices have been heading into the backcountry as well. Tom Wisniewski, an employee at Christy Sports in Denver, said backcountry skis had been flying off the shelves during the pandemic — but many buyers were unaware that they should be supplementing their purchases with basic avalanche safety equipment or avalanche courses.

That includes learning how to use a beacon, a shovel and a probe, as well as how to deploy an avalanche bag. A “beacon training park” created last year in the White River National Forest near Minturn, Colo., has beacons buried in the snow that can be turned on by a control panel, allowing trainees to simulate searching for someone with a beacon.

Before heading into the backcountry, Mr. Brackelsberg said, it’s important to make sure it’s “the right day to go out,” depending on personal skill level and current conditions.

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