A Brief Guide to Avalanche Safety (Part One) - aZengear
Healthy Lifestyles

A Brief Guide to Avalanche Safety (Part One)

by Emily Jannet on Dec 30, 2022

Statistically speaking, the likelihood of any given hiker or skier getting caught up in an avalanche is fairly low. But as avalanches are notoriously unpredictable, taking things for granted is never a good idea.

As proven recently by a chap from the UK, who while on a trekking tour in Kyrgyzstan caught on camera the avalanche that nearly cost him his life.  Miraculously, he walked away unscathed, but the footage he captured showed just how devastating an avalanche can be.

Not to mention, the importance of having the right safety gear with you – just in case things take a turn for the worse.

Off-piste skiing and wild hiking can be two of the biggest joys of the winter months for adventurous types. But as these kinds of activities come with inevitable risks, it’s essential to be prepared for all eventualities.

Not to mention, know how to limit your likelihood of being exposed to extreme danger in the first place.

In this article and the next, we’ll be providing a brief yet essential overview of the most important avalanche safety awareness tips you need to know this winter.

What Causes an Avalanche?

The most common cause of an avalanche is the rapid build-up of snow on a slope of 30 to 45 degrees. Snow doesn’t tend to slide on slopes gentler than this, nor does it stick to steeper slopes. In addition, snow that accumulates gradually rarely results in avalanche conditions, as the excess snow slides away more gradually.

Avalanches occur when vast quantities of snow accumulate quickly on surfaces with these kinds of gradients, and are subsequently dislodged. Hence, the best way to avoid being caught up in an avalanche is to avoid high-risk areas following snowstorms and to use an inclinometer to measure slope gradients.

Observing the Terrain

The stability of the snowpack that forms on a slope can be difficult to ascertain. Things may look stable enough, for you have absolutely no idea what’s going on beneath the surface.

This is why the general rule observed by most professional off-piste skiers and hikers is to avoid areas around slopes of 30 to 45 degrees for at least the first 24 hours following a snowstorm. If anything more than 30cm of snow is likely to have settled within the past day or so, it’s best avoided for safety reasons.

The same can also be said for wind-loaded snow – i.e. where significant deposits of snow have settled on a slope, having been blasted in its direction by the wind.

If there is no way of knowing whether or not the terrain is safe, it should be avoided for the time being. This counts double if you plan on tackling terrain that is unfamiliar to you, or if it is an area that is prone to avalanches in general.

Equipping Yourself Properly

The gear you take along for the ride during winter should always prioritise your health and safety. There’s nothing you can do to stop an avalanche from occurring, but you can at least protect yourself in the case of an unexpected emergency.

For example, something as simple as a powerful whistle can make the difference between life and death, if you suddenly find yourself buried in snow. As can a compass in the event of poor visibility, a basic first-aid kit, a mobile phone with GPS enabled, and high-visibility clothing.

Taking things a step further, you could even consider investing in ava-lung that provides an essential supply of oxygen in emergency situations. It’s the kind of thing you’ll probably never need, but could be a genuine life-saver in the unlikely event that you do.

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Stay tuned for the second half of our two-part avalanche safety post, coming soon...