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A primer on avalanche education

January 18, 2012
By MIKE LYNCH - News Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

KEENE - Avalanches are considered rare occurrences in the Adirondack backcountry. I've heard more lament and concern about icy conditions than the potential for snow to slide down a mountainside.

Still, avalanches do occur here and it's worth learning as much as possible about them if you venture out into avalanche terrain.

In a December 12 posting on the Adirondack Backcountry Skiing website (, hosted by Drew Haas, Albany area resident Richard Tucker wrote an extensive essay on the subject. He documented 24 avalanches since 1929. There's obviously many more that have taken place, but weren't documented.

Article Photos

Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
Skiers and climbers take an avalanche education course at Adirondack Rock and River guide service in Keene during Mountainfest on Saturday, Jan. 14. 

Considering how many ski days there are every year and how many avalanches have taken place, the risk factor is pretty low. But within that small risk factor is the fact that if you're caught in one, you could lose your life or at least be seriously injured.

That's reason enough to not overlook the issue of avalanches.

This winter, after a year when many new slides were created during Tropical Storm Irene, it seems like the probability of an avalanche taking place has increased. More slides means there is more unknown terrain and more places to attract skiers. The excitement factor has also risen as more people may be interested in hitting these slopes.

The desire to hit the slides isn't a bad thing, but those who head up there should educate themselves on avalanche safety prior to heading out. There are a number of ways to do this.

A good way to start is to read some of the material available. One good book is "Snow Sense" by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler. I know The Mountaineer gear store in Keene Valley has this book and other outfitters may as well. The Mountaineer is actually a good place to start because they have numerous books on the subject, and members of their staff are knowledgeable backcountry skiers and climbers.

Another good place for info is the Adirondack Backcountry Skiing website. This site has information on avalanche education classes that are available and contains links to articles and posts related to the subject. The Enterprise and Adirondack Explorer also have archived articles on the subject.

After you've read up on the subject, I would recommend taking classes, which is what I did this past weekend. Hearing this information firsthand from someone with experience is invaluable and speeds up the learning curve immensely, at least for me.

I took a course offered during The Mountainfest last weekend in Keene and Keene Valley. The course targeted those who want to achieve a level one certification with the American Avalanche Association and National Ski Patrol. The Mountainfest offered the first part of the course. Those who want to get certification have to take another two days of classes at Whiteface Mountain in March.

The courses were taught by Chuck Boyd, who owns Vertical Realms in Connecticut. The company offers education services and guiding.

Boyd has climbed and skied all over the world and has an extensive list of credentials.

During the beginner course on Saturday that took place at the Adirondack Rock and River guide service in Keene, Boyd emphasized the basics.

He stressed that many of the most important decisions that can prevent an avalanche are made prior to entering the backcountry or even leaving your house, for that matter.

There are certain red flags that can be detected from home. Things like rain on new snow is really dangerous. A large temperature increase that goes above freezing is also a red flag.

Boyd noted that many people who get caught in avalanches get "powder fever" and head out to avalanche terrain just after a big snowfall. This is a time when slopes are prone to sliding.

He recommended that anyone who wants to ski in avalanche terrain should have the basic tools, in addition to their normal backcountry gear. They should specifically have an inclinometer, compass, maps and altimeter for evaluating terrain.

Knowing which way a slope is facing is extremely important. As a general rule, snow bonds faster on southern slopes and takes much longer on northern ones.

The inclinometer will help you determine the angle of a slope. Those that are between 30 and 50 degrees are usually considered prone to avalanches, with 35 to 40 degrees being the most dangerous.

One should also have a locator beacon, probe and metal shovel, Boyd said. He emphasized that people need to really know how to use the beacons prior to going into the backcountry. You have a very limited amount of time to rescue someone buried by an avalanche.

The shovel can be used in rescues and in digging test pits. He recommended metal because he said plastic ones will break.

Those are a few of the bare minimum basics he talked about during the classes. For those who want to learn more about the subject take advantage of some of the resources I mentioned above.



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