Staying Safe In Avalanche Country

Feb 24, 2017

A winter storm this week brought even more snow to the Tetons and the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort closed Tuesday because of high winds and avalanche danger. But, those spiny peaks aren’t the only place in Wyoming where snow must be approached with caution. Fresh powder beckons snow enthusiasts to get out and play. Every year, Wyoming sees multiple fatalities from avalanches. All you need is the wrong combination of terrain, snow and weather, and there could be a problem.

As Wyoming Public Radio’s education reporter, and an avid skier, I decided to take a course on how to stay safe in avalanche country. When I walked into the first session of the course, while everyone was getting situated, there were mesmerizing clips of video playing — skiers dropping out of helicopters, bluebird days with powder billowing off jagged peaks, and massive slabs of cascading snow careening down high open slopes. But that’s not terrain I’m likely to ski anytime soon. So, I started wondering why I’m even in this class.

Jerry Hamman, the instructor of my avalanche safety course, said the doubt I felt was the point. “It makes great exciting video but the fact is a small slope that avalanches and can cover us.” And he said, “That’s something that we probably travel through and may not notice. This is nothing like the video. It’s not this high steep slope.” 

The 20 students gathered in a classroom at the University of Wyoming are a mix of college students, search and rescue volunteers, mountaineers, snowboarders and skiers. As a group of backcountry enthusiasts, Hamman points out that even if we’re not up on the high peaks like in the video, “We are traveling in terrain where there is enough snow to slide down on top of us so we should be aware of those subtle terrain issues.”

Hamman has been a ski patroller for the last 20 years for the Medicine Bow Nordic and Snowy Range patrols, just outside Laramie. While he has seen accidents in above tree line snowfields, he has also responded to calls in gullies below the tree line too.

“They’re all sad stories associated with humans interacting poorly with avalanches.”

He told us that avalanche danger can also lurk at the local sledding hill.

“This happened to be a youth group from one of the local churches. They were up in the Centennial area having a wonderful day . . . inner tubing and sliding off a short hill . . . and in the midst of doing this they were on a snow pack that had the ability to break into large blocks . . . and one did break. So there was a young man who died.”

That seemingly benign hill, had the basic ingredients for an accident: unstable snowpack, a steep enough slope and a trigger — in this case a human — who set off an avalanche. There’s a lot of geeky science that explains why snow doesn’t hold, but Hamman said the human factor is what really makes a difference.

Part of this course involved getting out in the woods; to see our impact on the snow and also to practice getting victims out of it.

We practiced using avalanche beacons; small devices you where that can send and receive signals. That combined with an avalanche probe and a shovel is what you use to find someone. Hamman organized scenarios and had us do timed drills searching for beacons buried in the snow.

We also dug snow pits, and learned to look for the weak layers lurking below the surface that make the top layers likely to break loose.

With more knowledge of snow and a command of the beacon technology that might make you feel safe, but Hamman said it shouldn’t, because that’s no match for the human ego. So, course curriculum has started to emphasize social science right alongside snow science.

Hamman said, “What we’ve found is people will take themselves into places that are easily identifiable as avalanche prone and in fact be at the level where a forecaster will say an avalanche is very likely here.”

And that’s where Hamman said peer pressure comes in.

“You shouldn’t go, but groups of people will coerce one another very subtly into leading to the stoke of the day. We’re gonna' go darn it. The snow is going to be beautiful. This is going to be wonderful. The odds of us getting into an avalanche are slim. It’s not going to be a problem.” Hamman said, “Instead of making the good decision that social group pushes themselves into a situation they shouldn’t be in.”

And it’s not that you can’t get out when there’s a risk of avalanche. You just need to choose your terrain wisely. To do so, Hamman recommended taking a class, or accessing the plethora of resources online. He said, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is a good place to start.

“Nobody wants to be the party pooper because the avalanche danger is high. Everyone else is stoked to say the snow is great. Wow. Excellent. Let’s go have fun.” But sometimes Hamman said, “what ends up happening is an avalanche.”

So, when you’re headed out Hamman said: check the weather, check avalanche forecasts, and check to make sure you have your beacon, shovel and probe. What might keep you safest is if you leave your ego at home, or don’t go at all, and know that another good day will come.

Resources recommended by Jerry Hamman: