When avalanche conditions “improve,” is it really safe to get out there?
On February 27, 2012, the Canadian Avalanche Centre posted a new article by avi forecaster Ilya Storm on their Forecasters Blog. Ilya described how conditions were improving in the backcountry, but as a forecaster he was still worried. Turns out, when conditions move from Extreme/High down to Considerable (check out the Avalanche Danger Scale), instead of relaxing a bit, backcountry buffs actually need to amp up their awareness and decision making skills.
The graph above demonstrates why most fatalities occur when ratings are somewhere in the middle of the scale:
a) LOW: When the danger rating is Low conditions are stable and avalanches are least likely, resulting in low fatalities.
b) EXTREME: An Extreme rating is a no-brainer signal either not to go skiing, or to ride super mellow terrain. Extreme ratings generally keep people safe by giving them advanced warning that they need to be extra cautious or by simply encouraging them to wait it out for less volatile conditions.
c) CONSIDERABLE: It’s in that middle ground, when conditions are Considerable, that one’s own decision-making skills are put to the test and the risk of fatalities goes way up. Say you check the CAC website and see that conditions have improved to Considerable and you’re itching to get out into that fresh snow. The question now is, how much risk are you willing to take based on your knowledge and experience? Your own knowledge, decision-making and terrain-reading skills are what you’re relying on out there. If you or your group are not confident in your ability to judge the danger of particular terrain features, localized snowpack and wind/weather affected terrain, don’t be fooled by simply relying on the CAC ratings to tell you if what you are doing is safe. It’s up to you, which is why so many more fatalities happen at the Considerable rating: the elevated risks associated with human error.
Despite all the careful effort put into testing slopes and providing backcountry skiers and snowboarders with a rating, risk levels are still difficult for the forecasters to predict. In his blog Ilya said he “can’t tell you exactly where or when, or how large [one] will be.” All they can do is provide you with the likelihood of a natural and/or human-triggered avalanche.
It’s still possible to have a great time out there, but understanding avalanches as much as possible is the key to coming back home after an epic day out. Ilya said, “there will be clues to help you evaluate conditions, but they could be subtle and need a bit of detective work to notice. An open-eyed, curious but cautious approach should serve you well.”
You can also check out Highline’s “Avi Smart” article from our Winter 2009-2010 issue. It’s all about helping kids make safe backcountry decisions:
The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is a non-government, not for profit organization dedicated to public avalanche safety. The CAC came into existence in 2004 with the support and collaboration of federal, provincial and private sector agencies involved in avalanche safety.