First things first: a magazine article is no substitute for proper avalanche education. If you plan on spending time in the backcountry during the snowy months, sign up for an AIARE Level 1 class and carry avy gear.
Whether you’re on skis, snowshoes, or foot, you’ll find some of the most exciting winter terrain is also the steepest–and most dangerous. Here’s how to find a safe route when you’re traveling in avalanche country.
LET IT SETTLE
Don’t hike right after a storm. Most avalanches occur during or just after a heavy snowfall, when added weight and weak bonds between fresh and existing snow make slides more likely. Experts recommend waiting at least 48 hours–but local variables can extend that time. Always check the avalanche forecast (go to avalanche.org to find a report for your area).
Assess a slope’s angle before traveling across or below it: Slopes pitched less than 25 degrees are safest, while 30- to 45-degree slopes are most avalanche-prone. Pack an inclinometer (or a compass with one built in) for the most accurate measurement. To use a built-in inclinometer, lay a ski or trekking pole on the slope. Hold the compass’s baseplate on its edge along the pole, then read the slope’s angle on the inclinometer scale. Also consider the slope’s curve: Concave curves tend to be more stable than convex ones because the snow lower on the hill often supports the snow above.
HIKE THE RIDGELINE
Climb on the windward side of gradually sloping ridges, where snow is usually thinner and less likely to slide. Stay well away from cornices; these wave-shaped drifts form on the lee sides of ridges and can break under a hiker’s weight. Hike as far away from the cornice’s edge as the ridge allows.
WATCH THE TREES
Avoid barren gullies and slopes with sparse stands of young timber. Trees with broken branches on their uphill sides are also signs that avalanches routinely sweep vegetation from the hill. Travel below or on heavily forested slopes, where mature trees help anchor the snow.
If you must traverse a steep slope, choose the highest route possible. People caught near the crown of an avalanche are more likely to survive, since they tend to stay near the surface of the debris. Travel one by one so a slide doesn’t wipe out your entire group, and move carefully but rapidly to minimize exposure.