Avalanche Safety – Introduction

Although in my posts I often make quick references to snowpack stability and consequent avalanche danger, I recently realised that so far I haven’t been writing anything about avalanche assessment and forecasting, by far THE most relevant aspect when travelling in the backcountry.

It’s actually a popular opinion among the people I spend my time in the mountains with that in a list of the most important skills needed to ski safely the backcountry, sliding skills (snowboarding or skiing) are somewhere near the bottom. The actual turning can often be done by anyone who is capable of skiing confidently black runs at a ski resort. But if you can’t get up, there will be no skiing down. Things like avalanche assessment, route finding, pacing, teamwork and safety, they all come before turning skills. There is no doubt about it.

Occasionally people ask me what films to watch or books to read. It is certainly a very good point to start from so I am going to give you a few titles later on in the post. Having said that, there is no substitute for simply go out there and learn your lessons on the field. When you are in the backcountry and travel in avalanche terrain the consequences of the smallest mistake or inaccurate judgment can be so serious that they can even cost yours or your friends’ life. So I suggest you attend a good mountain safety course before venturing out there and start hiking up a slope. Let me know if you don’t know where to start, I will put you in the right direction.

Backcountry snowboarding and skiing is something that produces an immense amount of joy in our life, putting the biggest smiles on our faces. There is so much out there we can receive from that environment. I feel I become more alive every time I am out there, hiking and sliding down a mountain face. But everything that produces such amazing feelings in our life is worth a certain amount of risk. How much risk it’s worth, it’s open question.

So, comparatively to sliding on groomed slopes, venturing into the backcountry exposes us to a considerable amount of risk. Now, those like me who keep hiking and riding they do it because have decided that the risk, however high might be, it’s well worth it.

Any good mountaineer and skier knows that any mountain slope is safe at certain times and very dangerous at other times. Mountains can be very friendly and welcoming one day and incredibly mean and harsh the following one. The good news is that they usually give us signs that their mood is changing. So learning how to read them is essential if you want to be safe both on your way up and on your way down. To use a very famous John Muir’s phrase: “When mountains speak, wise men listen“.

So the idea behind avalanche education is essentially to learn and master specific skills which will eventually allow us to make smart decisions on our own in terms of when to go and where to go. Isn’t all about having this immense amount of freedom to choose where to slide, when to do it AND how to do it!? However, avalanche knowledge and decision-making skills take time to develop and most importantly to refine. So I suggest you choose your routes very carefully while developing your skills and knowledge.

From a riding/skiing/climbing point of view, those skills become absolutely crucial when you find yourself in a dangerous situation and you need to figure out how to deal with it in a safe way. That is what motivated me to attend my first avalanche course a few years ago. Wherever I was in the mountains I remember looking around me, staring at all those beautiful peaks thinking: “wow.. hike and ride that thing would be awesome, I want to learn how to do it!”

Since then, although I haven’t become an avalanche professional, I have attended a number of mountain safety courses and spent a decent amount of time in the mountains and I can tell you that avalanche safety is an incredibly vast area to cover. I wouldn’t dream about using my little blog to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of avalanche forecasting!

So what I am going to do here is simply summarise in few posts some basic information I believe will give you a taste of what avalanche safety is about. I hope this information will inspire you and help you develop an interest for the topic. I am sure I will mention this again, but I would like you to be aware and remember that the evaluation and forecasting of avalanche hazard is far from being a precise technique. It can be described more like an art and as such it must be learned through practice and experience.

Should you wish to read about it, these two are the best books I read about avalanche safety, especially the first one:

Surviving in Avalanche Terrain”, Bruce Temper
Avalanche Safety for Skiers, Climbers and Snowboarders”, Tony Daffern

The best DVD currently available is “The Fine Line”. You can buy it here:

Stay tuned for Chapter 1 – Mountain snowpack and types of avalanches

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