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On the morning of Jan. 5, 2017, Ben Parsons, 36, and two friends set out for a day of backcountry, touring from the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot in Glacier National Park. Ben and his companions were experienced backcountry skiers and were all equipped with transceivers, snow shovels, probes, and helmets. Parsons was an accomplished endurance athlete and a firefighter in Whitefish.

The three men started skiing toward Mount Stanton via the Going-To-The-Sun road, later joining the Trout Lake trail toward the west ridge of Mt. Stanton. At this point, one of the group said he wasn’t feeling well and set out to return to the car. Ben and his companion continued along the west ridge to the summit.

According to a Forest Service report, the two men “noted a weak snow pack on their ascent to the ridge, as well as, areas of weak snow and scoured surfaces along the ridge.”

Parsons’ skiing partner later told the Forest Service that, Parsons skied into a relatively broad ridge around 2 p.m., where he conducted two tests utilizing his ski poles to check the stability of the slabs. He then made two turns, placing all of his weight on the edge of one ski, also known as down weighting, to check to check the stability of the snowpack between them.

After his second turn, probably while doing a third down weight check, Parsons triggered the avalanche that broke above him and quickly swept him off his feet. Though he was found immediately and only partially buried, Ben Parsons died of his injuries.

Avalanche Danger

What many people think of when they imagine an avalanche are white, fluffy clouds of loose snow cascading down the mountain. Avalanche experts call these types of slides “sluffs.” Sluffs account for only a small percentage of avalanche fatalities and property damage. The real killers, and what professionals and backcountry experts call an avalanche, are slab avalanches. The vast majority of fatalities from sliding snow are attributed to dry slab avalanches, which occur in dry snow at below freezing temperatures.

Think of your dining room table as the mountainside, with a table cloth representing a layer of snow. Now, grab one corner of that table and slowly lift it upward. Imagine a plate added to the table cloth with a person standing on it. The added weight will cause the table cloth to lose traction on the table’s surface and slide downward, carrying the plate and person with it. You’ve just created a slab avalanche. But what causes this to occur? Like people, snow does not like rapid change.

A dry slab avalanche occurs when too much weight adds to the top of a layer of snow. This additional weight fractures a buried, hidden weak layer below, carrying the snow above downhill with it. A few feet of snow in a couple weeks is not a serious problem. However, few feet of snow in a couple days is a different story, and problems begin to mount. A few feet in a couple hours and you have an extreme problem.

Wind, the most common cause of avalanches, can load snow 10 times faster than snowfall. Add the weight of just single skier or snowmobile to this and damages to the buried weak layer occur rapidly; not in a couple hours, but in a couple tenths of a second. According to the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, avalanches are responsible for more fatalities in our national forests than any other natural hazard.

The last 10 winters in the U.S. saw an average of 30 fatalities due to avalanches. These deaths are not limited to extreme athletes in remote stretches of mountain ranges.

Snowmobilers and backcountry tourers are the most likely to be involved in an avalanche. But anyone—hunters, hikers, and people just driving through the mountains—can be caught in an avalanche.

One of the biggest myths surrounding avalanches, often perpetuated in movies and on television, is that noise can trigger one. This is simply not true. It takes an extremely loud concussion, like that of a mortar shell used by trained snow mitigation teams to break a slab loose, to cause an avalanche. What really causes the snow to let loose are people.

In 90 percent of all avalanche accidents, it was the victim or someone in the victim’s party that caused the slide. But there are ways to limit your chances of getting caught in an avalanche, and they begin before you even leave your house.

Before You Go

While there is no perfect plan to help you completely avoid an avalanche, there are several things that can be done to minimize your chances of being caught in a slide. Jason Simons-Jones, an International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IMFGA)/International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAGM) Licensed Mountain Guide and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 3 certified guide and instructor with the Colorado Mountain School, says that it all starts at home. The first thing anyone should do before heading into the backcountry is check the weather and conditions. A rule of thumb to follow is: More than a foot, stay put.

“If there’s been more than a foot of new snow in the backcountry, conditions are not going to be safe. It puts too much of a load on the snow pack,” Simons-Jones says. Another thing he suggests watching for is wind. “Steady 20-plus-mile-per-hour winds create unsafe snow loads on lee sides of the mountain.” Finally, watch for temperatures creeping above freezing, especially late in the season. To find your local avalanche conditions, visit the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center at FSAvalanche.org/get-the-forecast. There is also a Canadian website. These sites provide maps and links to multiple state avalanche agencies and the current conditions in the backcountry.

The Right Stuff

The correct gear is essential. At minimum, every member of the party should have a shovel, a probe, transceiver, and some sort of communication device. It is important to remember that, while the snow beneath your snowmobile or skis feels like the perfect powder, once an avalanche settles it becomes as has hard as concrete.

When it comes to poles, size matters. The average burial in an avalanche is close to four feet. If you have a shorter pole, you may miss the victim during your probing.

At the Colorado Mountain School, Jason says that their transceiver of choice is the Backcountry Access Tracker 3. He suggests that no matter the brand you choose, make sure it is digital and equipped with a triple antenna. Knowing your terrain also helps you select a communications device. In some parts of the backcountry your cellphone will be as useful as brick, so if you are going deep into the mountains be sure to carry a radio or satellite phone. And of course, you should have a backpack rugged enough to carry all your gear. Backcountry Access also makes backpacks that can stow all your gear and provide an extra level of safety. These backpacks feature airbags that can be inflated like a life vest to help you rise to the top of the slide.

Just because you have the correct gear in no way means that you are ready to head into the backcountry. Training is probably the most important thing you can do to mitigate your chances of triggering a slide. No responsible gun owner would hand a rifle to another person without first making sure they were trained in proper firearms handling. Those rules also apply for anyone venturing into the backcountry. And the training isn’t limited to backcountry skiers. Sleds are taking people deeper into the backcountry, and it is equally vital that snowmobilers are avalanche safety trained. But anyone—hunters, snowshoers, a family looking for some tubing fun—need training in basic avalanche safety.

The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education offers a variety of programs to help prepare people heading into the backcountry. At minimum, the Level I AIARE course is your best bet to help put your odds of survival in your favor. The course will train you in the following:

• Characteristics of avalanches including types, classifications, and behaviors.

• Observation and information gathering including field observations, snow load tests, red flags, and a checklist to help make critical and honest decisions.

• Trip planning and preparation.

• Companion rescue and equipment training.

To find your local AIARE I course offerings visit the AIARE website at Avtraining.org.

Before you head out, be sure to let people know where you are going, and provide the places you may detour to should conditions at your first area be found to be unsafe. Don’t head out into the mountains alone. Travel in groups. But when you are in your group, remember slope etiquette: One person at a time on the run or hill and don’t do anything to endanger the people below you. It is important to note that having the proper gear does not guarantee survival. One out of every four avalanche fatalities are due to trauma and no amount of gear could save them. And in the end, avalanche safety gear will only save about half of the people caught in slides.

At the Trailhead

The classes are over, the gear is prepared, and the snow has fallen. The snowmobile is gassed up or your skis are waxed and tuned. It’s time to head into the powder.

Your drive up to your favorite run is where your avalanche preparation begins. Be observant of the conditions around you. Listen to the forecast and any advisories. Pay close attention to the winds and look for any signs of recent avalanche activity. Consider your friends as you head out. Avalanche survival means that you have your buddy’s back should they become a victim and vice versa. If the people in your group are not trained, it may be in your best interest to leave them at home.

At the trailhead, check to make sure that everyone has their beacons turned on. If you are in a group of snowmobilers, be sure that everyone’s equipment is on them and not the sled. This is also a good time to do a quick practice run using shovels and probes. Make a game out of it; put lunch money or some other small prize on the outcome. Once you have ventured out into the backcountry, continue to utilize your eyes and ears. Look around for signs of recent avalanches or rapid thawing, and areas of wind-loaded snow. Listen for cracking or whumphing, the tell-tale sound of the top layer of snow collapsing into the weak hidden layer beneath, while on the trail or the slopes.

Take careful note of areas that may prove to be harmful.  Well over 90 percent of avalanches occur on slopes with an angle of 30 degrees or greater. Staying off these slopes is the first step in keeping yourself and your party safe, especially if the warning signs signal that a slide in the area is possible. Avoid suspect terrain in the first place. As tempting as the snow may look, if there is even the slightest hint that the area is suspect stay out. As a group, either as skiers or snowmobilers, don’t gather in avalanche run out zones and don’t group or regroup in avalanche paths. There’s plenty of great skiing or sledding to be had on less extreme terrain, so make sure that you are not on, connected to, or, most importantly, beneath these 30+ degree slopes.

The best practice when in the backcountry is managing your exposure to suspect or dangerous terrain. But even with best practices applied, an avalanche may still occur. It is important to repeat: 90 percent of all avalanches and fatalities are caused by the victim or someone in the victim’s party.

Whumpf

As Ben Parsons’ tragic example shows, even the most prepared and observant of us can still trigger a slide. There are a few things that you can do to slightly increase your odds of survival.

When you hear the ominous whumpf of the snow collapsing beneath you and you watch as the surface fractures like a pane of glass shattering, your first job is to get yourself off the slide. Easier said than done.

Within five seconds of the fracture, an avalanche can be moving at more than 60 miles an hour with you as its unintended passenger along for the ride. If you made your cut into the slope appropriately, do what you can to carry that speed across to a safe spot on the outside edge of the slide.

If the fracture occurs just above you, side-step if you are on skis and try to let the snow go past you. However, if the fracture is way above you or the safe edges are out of reach, your only chance is to point your skis or sled downhill and try to build momentum on the turbulent mass beneath you and try to get off the slide further downhill.

If you find yourself separated from your sled or knocked off your skis and caught in the slide itself, inflate your airbag if you have one and swim for the top. A human body is three times denser than the snow debris, and it is almost likely that you will be dragged under. Yell and keep yelling so that the members of your group can track you by sound. Make sure to ditch your skis and poles or your sled.

As the slide begins to slow, new research shows that you may have a greater chance of survival if you ball yourself up in a fetal position. Approximately 75 percent of avalanche fatalities are due to asphyxiation, as carbon dioxide collects in the small space around the mouth and nose. Jason Simons-Jones explains, “People who were found in a position where they were trying to reach up were more likely to be found with snow in their airways. Survivors who were found balled up created more airspace for themselves to give rescuers more time to reach them.”

Watching your friend get swept away by an avalanche is going to be a frightening moment. How you react and what you do in those first few seconds can mean life or death for your partner. First and foremost, don’t panic. Let the person in the slide do all the panicking for you. Your calm, clear, and focused mind is what they need at that moment. Do not go for help. You are the help. Next, be sure to have everyone in the group switch their beacons to receive. This is not the time to be chasing false readings. Watch and track their decent for as long as you can and as long as the terrain allows. Get to the victim’s probable area via the safest decent possible, utilizing the easiest and quickest route of travel. Sometimes, that route will be the path of the avalanche itself.

Once you are at the likely location of the victim or victims, conduct your beacon search. If the victim does not have a beacon (they probably should have been left at home) then probe. Know that probing is a long and tiring method of searching but do not get discouraged. Needles can be found in haystacks.

You can focus your search in areas where snow debris has piled above trees, on benches, or anywhere else it has accumulated. With multiple victims, do not start digging out the first one you find. Clear an area for them to breathe—and get them breathing—and then move on to the next victim. Victims found within the first 15 minutes of the avalanche they have a survival rate greater than 90 percent. After that the survival rate plummets to only 30 percent at 35 minutes, 27 percent at 90 minutes, and 3 percent at 130 minutes.

You might have all the right gear, taken all the correct classes, listened to the forecasts and made observations. In the end, if you feel uneasy about anything while you are out in the snow you have to have the courage to say no and walk away from the situation, often in the face of pressure from friends. The mountains will be there tomorrow or next week waiting for you to ski that seemingly impossible run or sled across that amazing hill. Make sure you are, too.

This article is from the winter 2018 issue of “Survivor’s Edge” magazine. To order a copy and subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.

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