Avalanches- How to predict them and stay safe

During the winter break, I have gotten into backcountry snowshoeing. As I was scaling the face of Mount Seymour (an extremely steep section of a mountain) I realized I didn’t know what to do if an avalanche were to break. Unlike many backcountry users, I didn’t know how to predict them. But they are somewhat predictable and you can tell where danger zones are.

Lhoste Mountain  (c) Jamie O’Shaughnessy  CC-BY-2.0

How to predict an avalanche

Most avalanches occur on terrain that is between 30-45 degrees and generally happens after a snowstorm. This is due to all the new powder that is loose on the top layer that can slide away from more packed icy underlying layers. But there are many other factors to consider. For example, if there has been a recent increase in temperature that can cause the top layer of snow to melt and become unstable.  Another important factor is the direction of the wind. It is always safer to travel across the mountain where the wind is blowing so that the snow is packed. Sometimes, even with knowing all of these details, you can still get caught up in an avalanche.

If you are one of the unlucky and find an avalanche forming behind you, you should attempt to swim in the snow as it falls down. Before the snow settles throw one hand up towards the sky and clear a pocket of air to breath. After the snow settles- feeling similar to concrete, you wait and hope that you have friends that can dig you out, you have between 15 and 45 minutes. Backcountry winter sports are extremely fun but it is also important to stay safe and not succumb to a powerful beast of nature.

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