How to Hike Mountains (Safely!) in Winter

Who needs an off-season? Take on the challenge with Colorado mountain guide Jason Antin's top tips for alpine travel in the fourth season.
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5 Tips for Safe Winter Mountaineering

Should I Hike This Peak in Winter?

Before you pack up the car, do a gut check: Are you ready for this?

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Assess Avalanche Risk

Pay attention before and during your hike to make sure you’re on solid snow. 

Snow

Assess the terrain before you start climbing.

Before hiking…

• Take a class. There’s no substitute for expert instruction.

• Check the avalanche forecast. Find your local report at avalanche.org. Note key factors, like certain areas, aspects, or elevations to avoid.

• Start early. Wet snow freezes at night, stabilizing it, but warmer afternoon temps can cause wet slides.

Factors to consider

Slope angle. Avalanches most often occur on slopes between 25 and 50 degrees, and dry avalanches, which are responsible for the majority of avalanche-related deaths, commonly at 37 to 38 degrees. Avoid hiking on or under those slopes.

Aspect. In the Northern Hemisphere, north-facing slopes receive less sun than south-facing slopes in winter. The snowpack on colder slopes is more likely to develop persistent weak layers, which inhibit stability.

Natural anchors. Snow on slopes with lots of visible trees and rocks is less likely to break loose as one piece. Only a few trees or rocks? Those signify a localized shallow spot, where the snowpack could be insufficiently anchored to the slope. Avoid these.

Slope shape. Snow stretched over undulating slopes, especially convex hillsides, is under more stress than straight or concave slopes, making avalanches more likely.

Red Flags

• “Whumpfing.” When a denser top layer of snow collapses onto a weaker layer beneath it, it creates a deep, reverberating “whumpf” sound.

• Shooting cracks. Stepping on unstable snow can cause it to crack and separate from the slope.

• Cornices. Wave-shaped heaps of snow at the apex of a ridge mean wind has deposited a heavy layer on the slopes beneath, making them likely to slide. Cornices can also snap off, triggering those slopes.

Recent avalanche activity. Look for scraped hillsides with clumpy snow debris at the bottom. Clean, white blocks with sharp edges, and/or visible, giant snowballs mean the slide happened within days.

• Pinwheels. Rolling balls of snow portend wet slides.

It Happened to Me: Buried Alive

In December, 2013, 26-year-old pro skier Amie Engerbretson was completely buried by an avalanche near Alta, Utah. Her training saved her life. —Morgan McFall-Johnsen

I was in the worst possible spot when the snow started to slide. My buddy and I had set out that morning to ski fresh powder in Grizzly Gulch near the Alta Ski Area. We found a slope that was small and just beyond the Alta boundary—safe, I thought.

After a turn, I felt the earth shift, like someone had pulled a rug out from under me. Then my worst fear: The snow surface splintered beneath my skis. I was right in the middle of a releasing avalanche—and above a gully, where I’d surely be dumped and buried.

I immediately deployed my airbag and angled my tips toward a stand of trees, fighting to stay upright on the river of snow. I managed to grab a branch, but a second wall of snow pummeled me like an ocean wave, ripping the tree out of my hands and sending me cartwheeling. It took everything I had to keep my arm crooked in a protective V-shape over my mouth.

I landed on my back at the bottom of the ravine and had a split-second view of sky before the snow flooded over me, turning the world gray and silent and cementing me in place. It all happened in less than 30 seconds.

I knew I only had a few minutes of oxygen. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see the snow pressed against my goggles and repeated the same thought over and over: “Breathe slow. Stay calm.”

After about five minutes, I heard crunching above me. Then I felt a probe strike—they’d found me. The first thing rescuers uncovered was my right hand. Someone grabbed it and squeezed. I squeezed back and knew that I was going to live.

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