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Survival: Unsafe Snow Conditions

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

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.

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