Avalanches kill an average of twenty five people per year. Unfortunately, this number is on the rise. This is due to more people venturing into the backcountry for recreation. Also, modern snowmobiles are more powerful than ever, allowing riders to access higher, steeper, and more dangerous terrain than ever before. Preventing the unfortunate event of an avalanche is as simple as respecting the dangers of an avalanche, understanding the snowpack conditions, and knowing the terrain you are travelling in.
Without respect for what an avalanche is capable of, you are without hope of preventing being caught in one. Skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling films of recent years often show professionals narrowly escaping avalanches in what appears a heroic triumph. This leaves many viewers with the notion that any avalanche can be out ran by an accomplished individual. This is false. Even the very best snow athletes in the world cannot win against some deep slab avalanches that run their course. These movie directors do not send athletes out to certain death. Seasoned avalanche professionals accompany the film crew, and assess the slopes thoroughly, to ensure that survival is more than probable.
Avalanches can travel at speeds of over two hundred miles per hour, generating force equal to that of a hurricane. Full sized trees can be uplifted like toothpicks. The deposition zone at the avalanches terminal end can be well over fifty feet deep, with hundred foot tall trees scattered throughout. There is no machine or skier in the world that can win this beast when caught in the wrong place.
Understanding the snowpack conditions will take some training. A Level A avalanche course will teach you the basics of surviving in the backcountry. Digging a snow pit will expose the different layers of snow. You can then identify any weak layers, to determine if an avalanche is likely. Even with extensive knowledge, you should call your local avalanche forecast center to listen to their daily forecast. The avalanche center sends professional forecasters out into the backcountry daily to assess the current danger. They give specifics on the current snowpack conditions, and issue a rating of the danger level. On high hazard days, where large, human-triggered slab avalanches are likely, backcountry travel should be limited to very safe areas, or avoided all together.
Avalanches rarely occur on slopes less than 25 degrees. Slopes steeper than 60 degrees will slide so frequently that a large avalanche is unlikely to occur. Most occur on slopes between 35 and 45 degrees, with 38 being the sketchiest. As such, measuring the slope angle of your desired route, and avoiding the dangerous slope angles on high, and moderate hazard days is the most sure-fire way to prevent a human-triggered avalanche. A steep slope may be the most fun, but living through the day should outweigh any amount of potential fun for an intelligent person. A simple and cheap device, called an inclinometer, is used to accurately determine the slope angle. When digging a snow pit to evaluate the snowpack stability, be sure to use a safe area, which reflects similar slope angle, and aspect.
Backcountry travel is extremely fun in the winter time, but not worth dying for. Be sure that you understand the deadly potential of avalanches, know the current snowpack conditions, and are familiar with the terrain in which you are traveling. Even when you feel that you are safe, always have an escape route planned in case of a slide. Have fun, but live to have fun another day.