Ready to ski this weekend? Check the avalanche danger first.
SPOKANE, Wash.– Avalanche forecasters are advising people who are eager to start their ski season to “take a deep breath” before they venture into the backcountry.
This comes from the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, which won’t begin regular forecast updates until Friday.
Avalanche danger is at Moderate in the Cascades, a 2 out of 5 on the avalanche danger scale. While the risk may be moderate, that mattered little this past weekend when one skier was killed in an avalanche on the boundary of Crystal Mountain resort near Mount Rainier.
While people who venture into the backcountry to find fresh powder put themselves at the most risk for avalanches, the risk is not zero at ski areas where avalanche treatment happens regularly. Three people were killed in 2020 during an avalanche on one of the trails at Silver Mountain Resort.
There are four factors that come together to create an avalanche.
First, there has to be a weakness in the snow. This can come in a variety of ways according to the National Avalanche Center. One way is when there’s a strong change in temperature between the surface of the snow exposed to the cold air and the base of the snow hugging the ground beneath it. Instead of a solid layer, these temperature fluctuations can create layers of loose, grainy snow that has trouble holding onto any snow that falls above it. This can also happen right at the surface of the snowpack, which can then become a buried weak layer when it snows again.
The next thing you need is a slab, a fairly uniform layer of snow that can slide away as a single unit. Slabs can form during snowstorms falling on top of weaker snow layers or when high winds blow snow into certain areas, adding weight to the snowpack.
Slope angle is also important. Slopes angled between 30 and 45 degrees make up many black diamond trails in ski areas and enticing terrain in the backcountry. These trails are most likely to make big avalanches since steeper slopes can’t hold heavy slabs of snow and flatter terrain is more stable.
Finally, an avalanche needs a trigger. According to the National Avalanche Center, 92 percent of avalanche accidents are started by the victims or someone who is skiing or riding with them. The added weight of a skier or snowboarder can be the final straw that breaks the weak layer below the snow.
So how do you stay safe?
First, be aware of the forecasts by visiting our local avalanche centers for the Idaho Panhandle and the Cascades. If you’re like many of us and stay in the boundaries of your local ski hill, heed all trail closures, ski with a buddy, and be careful if the avalanche danger is elevated in the backcountry. Your local area can lower, but never totally remove the threat of avalanche.
Avid backcountry skiers should always have their safety gear on hand in addition to paying attention to the avalanche forecasts. If you’re interested in backcountry skiing and how you can stay safe out there check out resources from the National Avalanche Center here.
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