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Know Before You Go

Knowledge of avalanche conditions and terrain can keep snow lovers alive


Knowledge of conditions and the signs of an avalanche make up just one part of a backcountry enthusiast's training. - NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
  • National Park Service
  • Knowledge of conditions and the signs of an avalanche make up just one part of a backcountry enthusiast's training.

I started a particular winter morning like I often do: heading into the mountains for an early-morning session of powder skiing before work. Climbing up through the forested sections of Tumalo Mountain with only the moon and my headlamp illuminating the way, I quickly gained the ridgeline and quickened my pace, the East Face bowl coming into view. The 10 inches of fresh snow that fell overnight and the chilly 15 degree-temperatures were all the motivation I needed for this "dawn patrol" excursion. Nearing the top, I spy a group in front of me ready to descend. As the first rider jumps in, the snow collapses around him, crackling like egg-shells, swiftly carrying the passenger toward the bottom of the slope. AVALANCHE!

In order to survive and thrive in avalanche conditions, awareness of the dangers is paramount. According to the National Avalanche Center, avalanches kill 30 people per year, and injure many more. The NAC defines an avalanche as "a mass of snow sliding, tumbling, or flowing down an inclined surface." Knowing a few basics can help avoid the potential tragedy of getting caught in The White Death.

Get Gear

Pete Keane, owner of Timberline Mountain Guides, says, "Education is the key to staying safe. Learn how to use your beacon, shovel and probe. Practice. Practice some more. Take time to understand how your personal equipment works."

Get Training

Aaron Hartz is a Ski Guide and Avalanche Forecaster for Central Oregon Avalanche Center. "People can't get enough information, knowledge or experience when it comes to traveling in the backcountry," he says. When it comes to safety in avalanche terrain, "It's a numbers game," says Hartz. "There are more skiers and riders accessing the far reaches of the backcountry, and more snowmobiles helping them get there."

By forgoing proper training, you're not only endangering yourself, you're risking the life of anyone traveling with you or skiing nearby. The motto "Earn Your Turns" has more than one meaning: Don't ski, snowboard, snowshoe, or snowmobile in the backcountry or side-country (Mt. Bachelor's Cone, for example) without formal avalanche training and basic first aid knowledge.

Central Oregon Avalanche Center is one of the best resources for knowledge. Its Pro Observer Network provides observations four times a week and snowpack summaries two times a week from December through April, as well as offering avalanche seminars covering the basics of avalanche safety. "Our goal is to become a full-fledged avalanche center within the next three to five years which means we will be able to post daily avalanche bulletins," says Zoe Roy of COAC.

Get A Forecast

Check the COAC website at for the latest snow observations before heading into the backcountry. Slab avalanches account for nearly all the avalanche-related deaths in North America. Hartz reminds us that "Wind plays an enormous role in our local snowpack. Although we are a maritime climate, where dangerous conditions happen quickly then drop off, (dangers such as) cornices and storm slabs can combine with persistent weak layers in the snowpack and lead to very dangerous conditions."

Hot Spots

Hartz reminds us that because slopes like Tumalo Mountain are so close, "lots of new people are exposed to the sport here, but tend not to give the area as much respect as they should. The East Face bowl of Tumalo is classic avalanche terrain. There have been several partial burials there, and all have been lucky enough not to have a (tragic) ending."

Still, Keane says, "Just because there are dangers, doesn't mean all terrain is dangerous. Understand the dangers, specifically, how angle and shape of the slope, combine for potential danger. Using terrain observations to keep safe is the best starting point for (new travelers). Then add knowledge about snowpack and snow science through an avalanche course."

Avalanche Knowledge

5 Red Flags is a system that uses simple visual clues to evaluate whether avalanche conditions exist.

New Snow

An estimated 90 percent of human-triggered avalanches happen during or within 24 hours after a storm. Give storm snow the utmost respect and assume high to extreme avalanche danger within 24 hours after a storm. Follow this rule and you will eliminate your risk of getting caught in an avalanche by 90 percent.

Signs Of Recent Avalanches

If you see signs of natural avalanches (crown lines, debris) take the danger very seriously. Take extra precaution if the natural avalanches have occurred at a similar elevation and on the same aspect as the slope you want to ride.

Collapsing Or Cracking In Snowpack

If you feel the slope collapse under your feet or hear whomping sounds, this is a sign of unstable layers in the snowpack. Cracks may also shoot out from your skis or board as you skin or ride in fresh snow. These are all signs of dangerous snow layers.

Rapid Rise In Temperature

No matter the starting temperature, any rapid warm-up is dangerous because the snowpack doesn't have time to adjust to the temperature change. Take extra precaution on the first warm day after a storm cycle.

Strong Winds, Blowing & Drifting Snow

If the wind is strong enough to transport snow then the avalanche conditions can change from stable to dangerous without any new snow. Watch for blowing snow on high ridges and beware of wind-loaded pockets at the top of faces and chutes.

Avalanche Danger Scale

LOW - Generally safe conditions. Watch for unstable snow on isolated terrain features.

MODERATE - Heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features. Evaluate snow and terrain carefully.

CONSIDERABLE - Dangerous conditions. Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision making essential.

HIGH - Very dangerous conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain not recommended.

EXTREME - Avoid all avalanche terrain.

Central Oregon Avalanche Center

Oregon Ski Guides

3 Sisters Backcountry

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