Avalanche Safety

Excellent information from the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team and Tia Rancourt, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District –  With all the recent snowfall we’ve been experiencing and more on the way, it’s a good reminder to be aware of avalanche potential and educate ourselves on proactive steps to take before going outside to recreate – whether skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing or hiking.

Proactive steps that you can take before going out include:

  • Check Sierra Avalanche Center’s recorded avalanche advisory 530-587-3558, ext. 258.
  • Visit http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/[sierraavalanchecenter.org] to learn more details about avalanche safety and training classes that are available.  Also, most local sports shops offer free classes and training throughout the winter.
  • Recognize warning signs:
    • Such as recent avalanches (if there are new avalanches, it’s likely that more are possible in that area).
    • Signs of unstable snow as you travel (cracking or collapsing snowpack, whumpfing sounds, hollow drum-like sounds on hard snow).
    • Heavy snowfall or rain in the past 24 hours (significant snowfall or rain can make the snowpack unstable; avalanches are often triggered the first clear day after a storm; because it’s sunny doesn’t mean it’s safe.
    • Windblown snow (loads leeward slopes, even when it’s not snowing out).
    • Significant warming or rapidly increasing temperatures (warm temps and gravity can cause the snow to creep downhill and become less stable).
    • Persistent weak layers (can be triggered weeks after a storm, they can be difficult to identify so check the Avalanche Advisory for your area).
  • Identify avalanche terrain:
    • Slope angle (avalanches are possible on any slope steeper than 30 degrees, and occur most frequently on slopes 35 – 50 degrees).
    • Terrain traps (anything that increases the consequences of being caught in a slide such as cliffs, trees and rocks).
    • Common trigger points (under certain conditions avalanches may be triggered from flatter areas in the runout zone or along ridge crests.
    • Aspect (which way does the slope face in relation to sun, wind?)
  • Safe travel protocol:
    • Back country travelers should carry proper gear such as a transceiver, probe, and shovel.
    • Always carry your gear on your body with your transceiver turned on.
    • Consider riding with an inflatable pack to increase your chances of staying on top of an avalanche.
    • Practice with your gear regularly.  Seconds count and your gear only works when you can use it confidently and efficiently in bad conditions.
    • Carry the gear and supplies you need to survive an injury or a long evacuation in winter conditions.
    • Be able to communicate with your partners and rescuers.
    • Remember that your gear helps you have a safer and more fun day – it does not guarantee your safety.
    • Never expose more than one person to avalanche danger at a time (one on a slope at a time).
    • Stay alert to changing snow stability due to changes in aspect, elevation, or weather factors (heavy precipitation, wind or warming).
    • Communicate within your group, have options.
    • Be prepared to do a rescue.

For more information on avalanche safety, visit http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/[sierraavalanchecenter.org].

Remember, the best tip is to “Know Before You Go”, the avalanche danger rating is only a starting point. You control your own risk by choosing where, when and how you travel.

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