By Martina Halik, Lead Avalanche Technician,
Avalanche Canada North Rockies Field Team
Heading into the backcountry can be a great way to shake off the winter blues and stay fit, healthy and socially distanced. Staying safe in avalanche terrain can sometimes be a challenge. I’d like to dispel some of the popular myths about avalanches. The following myths and topics are among the most common I’ve encountered when asked about avalanches.
1. “Avalanches are natural disasters which strike without warning”
Avalanches are generally predictable and preceded by warning signs: natural avalanches on nearby slopes, shooting cracks, and weak layers in the snowpack are some examples. People are rarely caught in naturally triggered avalanches – statistics show 90% of avalanche fatalities were triggered by the victim or someone in their party. The process of a weak layer forming in the snowpack and eventually failing begins hours, days or even months prior to the actual avalanche event. Digging down to check and test these layers can be a great clue for what’s going on with the snow. Reading the avalanche bulletin on avalanche.ca and taking an avalanche course can teach you to search for and recognize the signs of unstable snow.
2. “Loud noises can trigger an avalanche.”
This is false, noise does not generally add enough stress to the snowpack. Many people wrongly assume noise was the cause of an avalanche when they trigger one from far away or in the flats (we call this remote triggering). This occurs when a widespread weak layer is collapsed by the weight of a person or machine. The energy from this initial collapse can travel hundreds of meters in just seconds like a pile of dominoes; collapsing the weak layer along the way and eventually triggering an avalanche on the steep part of the slope.
3. “Slopes that have produced large avalanches and killed people in the past should always be avoided – and slopes you have crossed a hundred times without ever seeing or hearing a report of an avalanche, are always safe.”
The stability of a slope is determined by the weakness/strength of the layering in the snowpack combined with the terrain (avalanches are most common on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees) and a trigger. This means a slope can be very dangerous one day and perfectly safe to ski or sled on at another time. Just because you haven’t seen an avalanche occur on a certain hill doesn’t mean that it never slides, it just means you were never there when a weak layer in the snowpack was overloaded. Similarly, a slope that may have once slid and fatally buried someone could be safe for most of the winter.
4. “Airbag packs will increase your chance of surviving an avalanche by 97%”
In an avalanche larger objects tend to rise to the surface, while smaller objects sink to the bottom. An airbag system incorporated into a backpack, has a large balloon(s) that inflate at the pull of a cord. This design makes the person wearing it larger so that they naturally rise to the surface of the snow. A scientific study (Haegeli et al. 2012) shows that if everyone recreating in avalanche terrain were equipped with a balloon pack, there would be approximately 10-15% fewer fatalities. This is much less than the falsely advertised and rumored 97%… but still much better than nothing! Airbag packs are a useful safety measure when travelling in avalanche terrain, just like wearing a helmet or a tether on your snowmobile. However the best tool to carry with you in addition to your essential rescue gear (a dedicated avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel) is the education to prevent yourself from getting caught in the first place.
5. “Avalanche Canada are the fun police – they are trying stop people from going into the backcountry”
The forecasters and avalanche technicians at Avalanche Canada love to get out into the backcountry skiing and sledding or climbing as much as you do! Their aim is to help people make better and more informed decisions regarding avalanche terrain. They all got into the industry through their love of those sports and a passion to continue to enjoy the backcountry safely. With the proper training, information on current conditions, and avalanche rescue gear, it is possible minimize your risk going into the backcountry almost every day of the winter.
6. There’s Only A Little Snow, Not Enough To Slide
There’s a saying in the avalanche community, “if it’s enough to ride, it’s enough to slide.” Even a shallow snowpack has the potential to slide. Sometimes there may not be enough to fully bury someone, but it could be enough to sweep them off a cliff face and to their death. It could also be enough to hurt climbers if they encounter falling avalanche debris. Many people have been killed in small avalanches in shallow snowpacks.
7. It Has Not Snowed In A while So There Is No Avalanche Danger
Far from true. Avalanche risk is often considerable or high during or immediately after large snowstorms, but this does not mean it’s the only time an avalanche can occur. Avalanches can be triggered many days or weeks after the last big snowfall. Many variables factor into snowpack stability like how the different snow layers interact, the metamorphosis of snow crystals, temperature, weather, slope angle, and so much more. But again, thankfully the staff at Avalanche Canada are out there to analyze all this input and translate it into avalanche advisories.
8. If Buried in an Avalanche, Spit to Know Which Way is Up and Down, then Dig Yourself Up and Out
The majority of the time there are only two ways to get out of the snow once you’ve been fully buried, to be dug out – or to melt out. Honestly, it doesn’t matter which way is up. Avalanche debris can consolidate around you like concrete. Many avalanche victims that were rescued from full burials report being unable to expand their chests to breathe or even wiggle their fingers.
9. You Can Out Ski / Outrun An Avalanche
This is not very likely. You may be able to ski off to the side if you are right near the top where the avalanche fails, or accelerate off with a fast snowmobile in a small slide, but it’s best not to count on it. An avalanche can reach speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph). Even a snowmobile can’t go that fast.
10. “I feel safe; there are so many people and other tracks around.”
Typically, when you go to the backcountry, you don’t go out alone. It is far safer to have someone or a small group of people with you, because of the resources, the equipment, and the support. To have a good chance of survival if buried you must be extricated within 10-15min. For that, you need your riding partner(s) to have witnessed the events, have the right gear and be trained in effective rescue.
That being said, more often than not there is a false sense of security that comes from riding in a popular area with many other people and tracks. Other tracks or people on a slope are not necessarily a sign of stability. It may simply mean those people were lucky and didn’t find the weak spot. More than one person on a slope at once may actually increase the hazard by doubling the potential for triggering, along with the potential for more than one person being caught in the same avalanche. A good rule to follow is one person on a slope at a time.