Survival: Unsafe Snow Conditions

Hard-won-lessons and tips about unsafe snow from the front lines of survival.
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Hard-won-lessons and tips about unsafe snow from the front lines of survival.



If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls

Trust Your Gut

Katie Herrell, BACKPACKER senior producer

I was excited—and queasy—at the prospect of joining BACKPACKER’s gear testing trip in Norway in the spring of 2010. Excited because it was my first chance to go on one of these expeditions, queasy because I feared my backcountry skiing ability wasn’t up to the task of crossing the Folgefonna Glacier. But the rest of the team assured me that if I could handle back bowls and glades at Vail, I could hack my way down a mellow glacier that rolled and dipped rather than peaked and plunged. And our guide insisted that at no point would the terrain be so steep or dangerous that we’d even need helmets.

Wrong on both counts. On the third day, we arrived at the glacier’s edge, and the only descent route dropped through a rock-and-ice riddled gully. Definitely not mellow. When we grouped up at the top, I meekly asked if I could take off my skis, only half joking. Our guide suggested I should go first, and he’d follow closely.

That was when I should have told everyone how terrified I was to ski out onto the treacherous-looking glare ice. It bulged at the top, where we intended to traverse the slope, and dropped away steeply to a minefield of black rocks, some as big as refrigerators. At the least, I should have insisted on following other, more experienced skiers. But I was too proud to admit I was in over my head. As I dropped in, I skied over my pole, tripping myself, and started sliding—headfirst. I rocketed toward the boulders, unable to find even a hint of traction on the slick ice. Our guide, horrified at what surely looked like a slide for life, launched himself down the slope after me—and lost control himself. He landed on top of me and we both came to a stop just before the rocks. The damage: His ski sliced a one-inch gash in my skull (a helmet would have prevented that).

After a trip to the hospital, I upbraided myself for that day’s false courage. And I realized that sometimes the bravest thing of all is saying no.

HOW TO SKI ICE

Former Olympian Chris Anthony guides clients down the steepest faces in Alaska, Europe, and South America. Here’s how he negotiates fall-you-die slopes.

1. Assess the Situation

Check the exposure you’re standing over and imagine the worst-case scenario. If you fall, where will you slide? What’s your escape route, if there is one?

2. Send Your Second-Strongest Skier First

In no-fall situations, Anthony sends his second-strongest skier down the slope so that the others can see exactly how to ski it. Then the rest of the group follows in descending order of skill—except the strongest skier, who goes last with the weakest skier and stands downhill (but out of harm’s way), and talks him or her through the traverse.

3. Don't Turn

Sideslipping is the surest way to make it down a sketchy spot safely. Put the majority of your weight on your downhill ski, making your edge bite into the slope. Lean away from the hill instead of into it, or you won’t get any edge bite. How to practice: Set your edges across the fall line of a slope, turn your upper body downhill, and have someone pull your ski poles as hard as they can. “They shouldn’t be able to pull you over, because of your edge-bite,” says Anthony. “That’s the feeling you want when you’re traversing or sideslipping.”

4. If Your Fall, Fight For Traction

If you lose an edge on ice, use anything and everything to stop yourself immediately. If not, you can’t stop yourself once gravity takes over. Fight to dig in your ski tips, elbows, edges, and knees. Better still: Carry an ice axe and ski-sharpening stone with you.


Be Humble

Peter Whittaker, Owner/guide, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.

To say I was feeling cocky during the winter of 1985 is an understatement. I was 25 years old, had 100-plus Rainier summits under my belt, and had just spent nine days without supplemental oxygen at 25,000 feet on Everest. I thought I couldn’t be better prepared for my first season of heli-ski guiding in Utah. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As tail guide, I sent my group down a 35-degree slope. But I decided to descend a different aspect. After hastily ski-cutting the 40-degree entrance, I dropped in—and immediately kicked off a slab avalanche. I slid 800 vertical feet, careening toward treeline. As I was swept away, the slide clobbered my group—and buried a 17-year-old girl. The other guides were able to dig her out. But the snow’s force slammed me into the trees. The impact ruptured my spleen, broke ribs, and blew my ACL, MCL, and patellar tendon. By a stroke of luck, my head and neck remained above the surface, but as the snow piled up around me, the internal bleeding made me light-headed. The last thing I heard was the helicopter pilot on my radio.

During a year of rehab, I had plenty of time to reflect on what I’d learned. Confidence is great. But I wish I’d known how quickly it can become overconfidence—and lead to poor decision-making. I’d been trained in avalanche assessment, and on that day I’d ski-cut the slope and dug a pit. But in my haste, I failed to notice I was on a slab, which sat on top of the snow like a graham cracker on BB’s.

I used to have a saying: Play for more than you can afford to lose, and you’ll learn the game. But in the mountains, that kind of risk-taking kills.

ASSESS AVALANCHE RISK

1. Get Prepared

Whittaker, who’s been skiing in avy-prone conditions for 30-plus years, says there’s no substitute for taking a Level 1 avalanche class (check out avalanche.org/education for course offerings). And buy—and practice using—an avalanche transceiver.

2. Check current conditions

Find the nearest avalanche-forecasting center and study past weather conditions, trends, and danger ratings—from mild to extreme, based on the snow’s stability—for the week leading up to your trip.

3. Compare your goal to the surroundings

“As you’re traveling, look for signs of avalanche activity,” says Whittaker. If you see activity on the same slope angle and aspect of the mountain you’re hiking or skiing, choose another way.