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April 1995

Avalanches: The Big Slide

Watching snow fall is a backcountry joy--unless it's barreling 80 mph down a mountain and you're in its path.

Slide Smarts

If you wander onto an unstable slope and hear a heart-stopping “whump” on a nearby slope that’s steeper than 25 to 30 degrees, or see cracks in the snow, get to safe terrain immediately. Either backtrack or follow the least-angled terrain available. If this unsettling noise occurs while you’re hiking a trail that’s not on a slope, take it as a warning to stay off tilted terrain.

Recognize and understand the snow-covered terrain and you can avoid a slipup in avalanche-prone areas.

  • Traverse above a slope, such as along a broad, open ridgeline, or below a slope in a valley. Bear in mind if you choose the latter that a slide may fill up the valley if an avalanche is triggered on the hillside above you.
  • Avoid traveling directly up- or downhill of another person. Ninety-five percent of avalanche victims trigger the slide that catches them, so stay clear of others’ paths.
  • Cross gullies and other avalanche-prone terrain one person at a time, and watch the hikers crossing ahead of and behind you in case they trigger a slide. The first person to cross isn’t always the one to trigger an avalanche.
  • Unbuckle your pack’s hipbelt and sternum strap when in questionable areas. Then you can ditch the pack quickly and use your arms to “swim” through the snow if an avalanche occurs.
  • Keep 100 to 200 feet of distance between hikers in avalanche-prone country, and never rope up. If a slide occurs, fewer people will be swept up in it. Resist the temptation to group together for conversation or comfort during stormy periods.
  • Carry a compact snow shovel, probe (or probe ski poles), and an avalanche transceiver-and have an expert teach you how to use them (see our Gear pages, for a review of our favorite transceiver). An ice axe and crampons generally aren’t necessary in the areas where avalanches are likely to form.

If you do get caught in a slide:

  • Try to get to the side of the avalanche before it accelerates, then grab onto a tree or rock outcrop. Or, swim atop the snow. When you feel the slide slowing down, punch your arm upward so others can find you. Not sure which way is up? Drool a bit; gravity will pull it down your face.
  • Clear an air pocket in front of your face if you’re buried. Don’t wait for the snow to stop sliding, because it will set like concrete almost immediately.
  • See Snow Smarts, for more tips on safe travel across four seasons of snow. Order a reprint by calling (610) 967-8296, or read the article at,2646,1851,00.html.


    Check these sources for more on avalanche safety. To order the books, go to

    Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard, by Jill A. Fredston and Douglas S. Fesler (Alaska Mountain Safety Center, 907-345-3566; $8.95).

    The ABC of Avalanche Safety, by E. R. LaChapelle (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; $6.95).

    Winning the Avalanche Game

    (videotape, Utah Avalanche Center, 801-524-5304;; $29.95).

    Westwide Avalanche Network,

    Information about avalanches and safety courses, and links to regional forecasting centers across the country are available here.

    Cyberspace Snow and Avalanche Center, This site provides avalanche conditions for 12 countries, plus photos, firsthand accounts, a Rutschblock Test reference card, lists of classes, and more.

    In the Rocky Mountains, try the American Avalanche Institute, (307) 733-3315;

    In the Northeast, check out Chauvin Guides International, (603) 356-8919;

    Mountain Savvy offers numerous courses on Mt. Hood and other peaks, (503) 780-9300;

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