Ponder the powder
SNC Freeride Club brings avalanche awareness to campus
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Fascination with the elegance, grace, and exquisite beauty of nature lures humans to test the boundaries of earth’s natural forms. Snow and mountains are two of the most humbling forces of the natural world. With their power and intensity, they lead people to risk their lives and explore the unknown possibilities that the earth holds.
As we embark on winter adventures that are often gratifying and euphoric but sometimes fatal, it is our responsibility to be educated about avalanche safety. This applies to all winter recreation, whether it’s snowshoeing, climbing, skiing, riding, snowmobiling, or sledding in the backcountry.
Nine out of 10 avalanche incidents are triggered by the victim, a fact that is both reassuring and gut-wrenching. This means that by educating people about the winter backcountry and avalanche awareness, accidents can be prevented 90 percent of the time.
The Freeride Club at Sierra Nevada College held an avalanche awareness event on Thursday, Dec. 1 with a platform called “Know Before You Go” (KBYG) led by the Sierra Avalanche Center and Andrew Hennigh, a forecaster at Mt. Rose Ski Resort. Based out of Utah, KBYG has spread avalanche awareness initiatives worldwide for 13 years. The program began with a compelling short film of a near-fatal avalanche that quickly caught the attention of the 50 attendees at the event.
The program highlighted five major steps, getting the right backcountry gear, performing drills and training, checking the forecast daily, knowing “the picture,” and getting out of harm’s way. Club founders and SNC juniors Dave Wadleigh and Dylan Hagan held a raffle to raise money for the club and to provide students with an opportunity to begin obtaining the right backcountry gear.
Wadleigh shared that in the Freeride Club’s first year they realized that avalanche awareness needed to be a big component because they are promoting skiing and riding in the backcountry. “There’s a lot of interest at the school, within the club, and within our general age range,” said Wadleigh. “Especially in our age range people are more apt to take risks and assume everything will be okay without really recognizing the risk factors.”
He added that the goal of the club is to continue promoting backcountry skiing and freeride skiing “but to show people the value and the necessity of getting the right knowledge and the right training.”
The Freeride Club was founded in the 2014/15 winter season with 40 members, half of which are actively involved. The club raises money for scholarships to help with avalanche education and real life scenarios and practice in the backcountry.
During the evening program, Hennigh taught that having the right gear and knowing how to use it can make the difference in saving someone’s life. However, the equipment only enhances the chance of survival once an avalanche has already occurred and does not prevent or keep someone from danger.
One out of four people are killed by “trauma,” or trees, rocks and obstacles on the way down the mountain. The remaining victims are killed by asphyxiation (73 percent) which is caused by suffocation or the “ice mask,” and hypothermia (2 percent). Rescue gear will only save about half of victims. When a victim is buried by the snow, he or she has about 15 minutes to be rescued (80 percent chance of survival) but any longer than that, the chances plummet to less than 40 percent.
Backcountry experts agree that the three most essential equipment devices include a beacon, a probe and a shovel. Avalanche transceivers or “beacons” must be carried by all members of the group. A beacon sends electronic signals that are picked up by searching beacons to help locate avalanche victims. Probes are collapsible aluminum poles used to directly locate buried victims. A snow shovel is used for digging holes and testing snow conditions, building shelters, and digging out avalanche victims. At REI these three items retail at around $400 for a beginner set.
In addition, other rescue devices include avalanche airbags, which are designed to help victims keep themselves afloat near the surface of the slide, deployed by manual ripcord. The “Avalung Pack” is a breathing apparatus that allows victims to pull available oxygen from the surrounding snowpack when buried, to help in preventing asphyxiation.
A complement to the beacon is a “RECCO detector” that can be embedded into ski products like jackets, pants, boots or helmets.
When digging a snow pit to examine the layers of the snowpack, snow saws, slope meters (a small device used to determine the angle of the slope) and crystal cards (showing the various forms of snow crystal characteristics) are often used in avalanche safety.
Hennigh noted that checking the forecast is critical when going into the backcountry. Sierra Avalanche Center is an excellent source for local avalanche forecasts. According to the website most avalanche accidents occur at moderate to considerable danger. The most common avalanche fatalities are caused by dry slab avalanches, when there is a release of dry unconsolidated snow. Other types of avalanches include loose, wet, and dry avalanches, wind, storm, persistent, and wet-slabs, glide avalanche and cornice falls.
In Tahoe, wind slabs and storm slabs are most common. Winds slabs occur when snow is deposited on downside slopes from upward winds from alternative aspects, whereas storm slabs develop from new storm snow layers on top of persistent weak layers.
Hagan, who interns for the Sierra Avalanche Center said, “The maritime snowpack in the Tahoe area is much deeper and has a much friendlier consolidation process. Meaning we don’t get these persistent weak layers like Colorado gets. In general, we can assume it is a somewhat safer snowpack, but nothing is safe and we still use the same caution.”
The fourth step in the KBYG avalanche awareness process involves getting “the picture” or developing an eye for the terrain and not only realizing but studying the consequences. Consequences could be gullies, sharp terrain, trees, cliffs, rocks, crevasses, and in Tahoe, the lake. Five common red flags or obvious clues to avalanches are:
When and where avalanches have occurred
Cracking or collapsing noises which indicates air escaping from under the snow slabs
Recent wind-drifted snow
Recent deposits or new snow
Evidence of rapid thaw
Getting out of harm’s way means only going into the backcountry when avalanche conditions are safe. This includes avoiding suspect areas, ascending and descending one at a time, and moving out of the way at the bottom of a slope. It’s also important to learn how to judge the steepness of a slope; most avalanches occur when the slope is between 30 and 45 degrees.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an average of 27 people died in avalanches each winter over the last 10 winters in the United States. Although every fatal accident is investigated and reported, there is no way to determine the number of people caught or buried in avalanches each year, because most non-fatal avalanche incidents are not reported.
Since 2006, the U.S. has seen 118 skier and rider fatalities out of 277. In addition, 13 have been in bounds, meaning within established areas at a ski resort. Avalanche awareness should be practiced whether you are in the backcountry or not. The organization lists backcountry touring (260) as the activity of highest risk to avalanches, second snowmobiling (249), third climbing (182) and fourth side-country riding (101) since 1950. Although the highest number of deaths occurred in Colorado (275), then Alaska (150), Nevada and California together have had 75 fatalities since 1950.
In the backcountry community, more professional skiers and snowboarders are bringing awareness to the risks of backcountry travel.
Pat Moore, professional snowboarder and X Games medalist, is a big advocate for avalanche awareness. He recently spoke at TEDx in South Lake Tahoe about the evolution of snowboarding, experiencing the loss of close friends to avalanches, and using his experiences to face fears and become educated in order to justify putting himself in danger day in and day out.
“There has been a shift in our entire snowboard culture,” said Moore. “It was just far less serious back then, but snowboarding has evolved a lot, and our entire industry started to realize the reality of these mountains.”
Moore and his peers have created an annual avalanche training camp at Baldface Lodge in British Columbia. They learn and train in real life settings, and in 2015 had 30 of the top professional snowboarders in attendance. “How that information trickles down to the entire community creates major change,” Moore said.
Moore talked about how the mountains do not discriminate. “At the end of the day, the snow doesn’t care if you are in the backcountry of Alaska or the side country of Kirkwood, here in Tahoe. If it’s layered in such a way, it can kill you.”
It used to be that people were afraid to get into an accident and report it. Hazel Birnbaum, a professional skier and athlete on the Freeride World Tour spoke as a guest lecturer at the KBYG event about a recent avalanche incident that buried her up to her chest while competing in Austria. She stressed the importance of not shaming accidents but using those experiences to discuss and learn from them.
“Knowing how you and your partners think and why you think that way, why you make those decisions is important,” said Birnbaum.
Daryl Teittinen and Rosie Hackett, both Outdoor and Adventure Leadership (ODAL) professors at SNC, teach the Level One backcountry awareness course “AIARE,” which stands for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.
“Backcountry skiing can be a lifetime of good times, but it can be deadly too. Newcomers should not be afraid, but they should be cautious and take the time to build skills,” said Teittinen. “Don’t hesitate to take the mellow route, or to turn around. The goal is to ski and play in the mountains for a whole lifetime, and to do that you have to make it home every trip.”
The Level One course teaches about terrain, weather, snowpack and rescue. From Teittinen’s personal experience skiing and educating about avalanche safety, he explains the most common mistakes “are when people make decisions based on their emotions and feelings and not on observations.” This is called a heuristic trap, and these traps can come from an individual or the group. These are exemplified in the acronym F.A.C.E.T.S, like the term facets, known as weak snow grains. This teaches people how to make good observations and then make good decisions.
F-amiliarity, or getting too comfortable with your surroundings
A-cceptance, or wanting to fit in to a group
C-ommitment, summit fever or “I’m gonna ski that thing” goals
E-xpert halo, or overconfidence
T-raps, or taking greater risk in social settings
S-carcity, for example, “hucking cliffs” in the early season
Teittinen explains that to be a good leader in the backcountry means paying attention to the weather, the snow, the group, the map, and time.
“The backcountry is a very dynamic environment and you get this incredible opportunity to combine observing the natural world in this really tuned scientific mindset with having a great time and ripping it up,” said Teittinen. “Right in the middle there is decision making and leadership, figuring out where to go or not go so that you can have a great time and not die doing it. To me, this is a really exciting and cool thing and if I can share that with people that’s why I like to teach avalanche safety.”
He recommends that students take the Level One AIARE course, a four-day field course that references the “Know Before You Go” platform. It is offered to SNC students in January and February. Teittinen also offers a more advanced course that builds on the Level One course and specifically works with group leadership including eight days of winter camping, snowpack observation, and backcountry skiing and riding experience offered in March.