5 Hacks for Avoiding Avalanche Disasters


ROCK SPRINGS — The Sweetwater Snowpokes hosted an avalanche awareness class at Western Wyoming Community College over the weekend.

The aim was to give those who recreate in the backcountry–whether by skis, snowmobiles, or snowshoes–a swift crash course in not getting buried under several feet of snow.

And if you do, it’s a game where you have less than 15 minutes to find the buried person or chances of survival plummet to a likely body recovery.

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The instructors, employees and volunteers from the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, were not messing around.

The course consisted of videos showing some “scared straight” real life avalanches, a few key takeaways with guidance on how to obtain further training, and hands on search exercises using the tools of the trade.

Here’s a taste of what they learned.

Margo Krisjansons, an instructor with the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, teaches students how to assemble a probe quickly.

1 – Get the Gear

Avalanche rescue equipment that each backcountry adventurer should have includes an avalanche transceiver, a probe, and a shovel.

The transceiver sends out a signal that helps your comrades find you within the critical 15-minute window.

A probe is a long metal rod you use to poke through the snow and pinpoint the exact location of the buried individual. And the shovel is for digging them out.

“Think of these tools as favors for your friends to find your body,” said Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center Instructor Brenden Cronin.

An air bag, which is an inflatable backpack that increases the wearer’s volume and creates a sorting effect that keeps the wearer on top of the snow, is recommended.

Students of the avalanche awareness class learning how to track using their avalanche transceivers.

2 – Get the Training

Using avalanche rescue equipment takes practice. Each person needs to understand how their transceiver works under a variety of circumstances.

In class, practice search scenarios helped these students understand how to track down the signal as quickly as possible.

One student in the avalanche awareness class who has used his transceiver to locate the source of the signal.

3 – Get the Forecast

You can use forecast information at the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center website. The website doesn’t cover the Wind River/Pinedale area, but it can be useful to infer based on the surrounding areas.

The forecasts are very general and don’t take the place of on-the-ground judgements.

Lots of snow and lots of wind make avalanches. The first sunny day after a storm is the best day for riding — but it’s also the best day for avalanches, so beware.

Rain or rapid warming can translate into weak, unstable layers in the snow.

A student in the avalanche awareness class practices assembling a probe quickly, which she would use to poke through the snow after an avalanche and feel for a buried person.

4 – Get the Picture

Look at the terrain before you undertake risky, avalanche-causing activities like traversing and high-marking. Slope angles are incredibly important.

Most avalanches occur on slopes at 30-45 degree angles.

Even more specific than that, an alarming number of avalanches occur in the 37-38 degree range. It’s flat enough to hold snow, but not for long.

Look for recent avalanches. Listen for a “whumpfing” sound and look for cracking. Don’t ignore these warning signs.

Jim Springer, an avalanche forecaster for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, shows a student how to orient his transceiver to get the best read on the signal.

5 – Get Out of Harm’s Way

Ride one at a time on avalanche slopes. Don’t group up in the most dangerous areas. Remember that you can trigger an avalanche from below.

Watch from a safe place facing away from the hill with your engine running.

You’ll want to be ready to run and then ready to rescue if needed.

Brenden Cronin, an instructor with the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, shows a technique for a large group to use probes to locate a buried person–very likely a body at this point in the search.