For most people, the scene of skiers and snowboarders trying to escape from an avalanche seems like a movie thing.
And while skiers know that skiing has some risks, most of them have never had to deal with an avalanche while hitting the slopes.
But this doesn’t mean that there are no avalanche cases on the slopes. In fact, there have been several reports of avalanches overtaking and destroying ski resorts.
So, you might wonder, what triggers these avalanches on the slopes? Can skiers cause avalanches while skiing?
In this article, we’ll look into the causes of avalanches when skiing and show you how to avoid being caught in an avalanche.
Can Skiers Cause an Avalanche?
Yes, skiers can cause an avalanche. An avalanche occurs when a thick or small layer of snow on the slope breaks and rolls downhill at high speed.
Recent studies reveal that about 28 people die in avalanches every year while skiing in the US. In most cases, these deaths happen when the victim triggers the avalanche through their activities on the slope and fails to outrun it.
But these statistics shouldn’t terrify and dissuade you from hitting the slopes. It’s important to keep in mind that the chances of being caught up in an avalanche are very low when skiing in a ski resort.
In the US, more than 15 million people ride on snowy slopes every year, and despite the high number, the number of peoplewho die skiingdue to avalanches is usually less than 30.
The good thing is that there is plenty of information about avalanches, making it easy for skiers and other slope users to avoid triggering them or being caught in a serious one.
There are also warning signs and precautions that ski areas require slope users to take to protect themselves from avalanches.
With that said, let’s have a deeper look at how skiing causes avalanches.
How Skiing Causes Avalanches
An avalanche refers to a large snow mass that rolls down a mountain at destructive speed. It can occur when there is a temperature difference between the air and the ground.
When the ground is warm, it causes the snow to melt from underneath, creating an unstable mass. In such cases, even the slightest trigger can cause a large snow mass to loosen and troll downhill with a lot of force and speed.
It’s hard for skiers to tell exactly when a mass of snow will become loose or too heavy to break off, but chances are higher when the slope is steeper than 30 degrees.
When the slope is steeper than 30 degrees and not more than 50 degrees angle, gravity pulls the heavy snow mass down the mountain, and there is no way to prevent destruction.
While there are different categories of avalanches based on how they start, most slides can be destructive when triggered by a skier or other slope users.
Avalanches are categorized into four, including loose snow avalanche, flow avalanche, snow slab avalanche, and dust avalanche. However, most avalanches that skiers witness are usually a combination of all the four types.
Loose snow avalanches are less destructive since they have less mass of snow and travel a bit slower.
Skiers can unknowingly trigger slab avalanches when they put their weight on weak layers of snow. And when this happens, the skier may be unable to escape as the layers of the breaking snow are usually thick.
Flow avalanches are common in spring as they result from a melting snow cover that happens when the temperatures rise. That’s why skiers are always advised to be extra careful when skiing on a steep slope during springtime.
When there is a lot of fresh snow falling on a steep ground, dust avalanches can happen, but they are not usually destructive as snow slab avalanches.
Skiers who love to explore ungroomed terrain, especially in the backcountry have a high risk of being caught in dust avalanches.
Deep-snow skiing on slopes that are not maintained also puts skiers at a risk of falling into an avalanche that may lead to injuries, or even worse, death.
How to Avoid Getting Caught in Avalanches When Skiing
Before any ski area officially opens for skiing during the winter season, the ski patrol examines the weather to know whether it could increase the risk of avalanches.
They pay attention to how the snow packs onto the slopes to ensure that they can easily trace any weak points that could lead to avalanches when skiers start using the slopes.
As the ski area opens and skiers start storming in to ride on the fresh snow, the ski patrol’s job becomes even more concentrated as they have to observe the terrain and maintain the runs.
They regularly monitor the ski trails to see how the terrain changes as skiers and snowboarders use it. This way, they can spot the weak areas that might result in an avalanche.
And when skiers are not riding on the slopes at night, the ski patrols use explosives to trigger avalanches and get rid of the weak points that are a danger to skiers.
They also look for areas that usually get less traffic during the day and close them to reduce the risk of slope users falling into an avalanche. This is because areas with less traffic tend to have loose snow, which increases the risk of an avalanche.
If you want to go skiing and are wondering what to do to avoid getting caught in an avalanche, here are a few tips to keep you safe on the slope:
#1. Study the Snowfall
Most snow experts will tell you that avalanches are common after fresh snow falls on pre-existing snow. So, if there has been a recent snowfall, you should avoid areas that lack traffic.
The reason is that when a snowy surface receives fresh snow and there is no continuous traffic, the snow will be loosely packed on the buried weak layer, increasing the risk of avalanches.
Sure, it can be very tempting to ski in the areas that have the freshest snow, but it’s not a great idea unless the ski patrol inspects your coveted area first.
If you want to ski on fresh powder snow, I’d recommend waiting for at least 48 hours for the snow to settle properly before you venture into it.
This applies mostly to skiers who love taking on challenges on backcountry terrain, as they are the most susceptible to getting caught in avalanches.
#2. Avoid Steeper Slopes
If you are just getting started in skiing, it would be unwise to ride on steep slopes that are more than the 30-degree range.
Steep runs between 30 to 45-degree angles have higher chances of avalanches, even with the slightest human mistake.
You should avoid walking across or downhill on steep slopes as this may lead to triggering unforeseen avalanches. It’s also important to steer clear of convex curves on slopes as they also tend to have less stability.
#3. Check the Trees
Trees are an easy and efficient way to tell whether an area has experienced avalanches. If you see that some trees in your chosen ski area lack some branches, they may have broken during an avalanche.
If you want to ski on safe terrain, you should avoid areas with trees that have missing branches and search for heavily forested ones instead.
Nevertheless, it’s essential to keep in mind that skiing in an area with more trees also exposes you to the risk of falling into tree wells. So, you want to follow the ski trails rather than riding very closely under big trees.
#4. Move Carefully on Avalanche Terrain
When you are out there skiing with your friends, it’s easy to care less about the terrain, especially if you are looking for the exciting downhill riding thrill.
To avoid being caught in an avalanche, you should choose your crossing paths wisely, as steep areas are more prone to all sorts of avalanches.
If you find yourself in a situation where you must cross a steep avalanche potential slope, you should do it more carefully.
Crossing one person at a time will also help instead of putting more weight and pressure on the weak surface at once.
#5. Ski on the Windward Side
Wind loading on the leeward side of the mountain can be risky for skiers and snowboarders.
It happens when strong wind erodes and deposits snow downhill on the mountain’s leeward side, which can cause avalanches.
Skiing on the windward slopes is your safest bet as the snow packs tightly here on the ground, but you still need to watch out for cornices that form when the wind drifts the snow downhill.
How to Stay Safe When Caught in an Avalanche
Have you ever witnessed an avalanche? If yes, we both can agree that outrunning an avalanche is nearly impossible.
It’s difficult to out ski a fast-moving avalanche, especially when skiing in the backcountry where the terrain is usually quite unpredictable.
If you were to ride at a high speed to out ski the avalanche on such terrain, you would risk dying in case of a collision with a tree or rocks, which are pretty common in the backcountry.
This simply means that outrunning an avalanche isn’t a brilliant idea in the first place.
So, what should you do when caught in an avalanche to ensure that you have the best chance of surviving? Here are a few essential tips that advanced skiers and snow experts recommend:
Try to Get Out of the Way
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports that about 28 people lose their lives in avalanches every ski season in the US.
And as the American Avalanche Association’s Executive Director Jaime Musnicki unveils, most of these deadly avalanches result from human behavior on the slopes.
The person who triggers the avalanches on the mountain ends up dying or being buried in the ice.
If you trigger an avalanche, the most prudent thing to do is to try to jump above the weakness line before getting caught in avalanche paths.
And if you are already below the point where the avalanche started, you can try to ride vertically to the slide, so you are not caught in the middle of a rapidly rolling snow mass.
Hold on Something for Smaller Avalanches
When caught in a smaller avalanche, you can find a large tree or rock to cling to, as the rolling snow may not take it out.
This way, you’ll protect yourself from being swept away and gain balance. Once you hold onto something solid, you can try to shout or call for help when you see a searcher nearby.
Try Hard to Stay Above the Snow
If you get caught in an avalanche, it’s easy to give in and stop fighting. However, this will only see you succumb to the snow and get your body buried in the slide.
So, you must try to keep moving and stay above the snow. You can achieve this by kicking and swinging your arms as if you are swimming to prevent sinking into the snow.
Even if you don’t do much with the rest of your body, swinging your arms will protect you and ensure that you are not pulled below the snow.
Keeping your arms up will also allow the rescue team to find you easily and save you from the deadly avalanche.
Keep Breathing and Don’t Panic
Did you know that most avalanche fatalities occur due to suffocation rather than the rolling slide itself?
If you find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of an avalanche, it’s essential to create some space where you can breathe to prevent suffocation.
Before you are fully buried in the snow, you can cover your mouth with one of your hands while lifting the other to form an air pocket. Then try to dig the area around your face to have some air.
Another crucial thing you want to do to increase your chance of surviving an avalanche is calming down. You don’t want to panic as this will only make you breathe faster and fill the area around your face with carbon dioxide.
And when you have less oxygen and are already sinking, it will be much more difficult for the rescue team to find you in time, even if you have an avalanche transceiver.
What Should I Do After an Avalanche?
If you successfully overcome an avalanche, there are two important things you need to do. First, if you were skiing with your buddies and found that one of them is still missing after the avalanche, you should call for a rescue team to track your partner.
You shouldn’t hesitate to call 911 as it’s the emergency number across North America, and they will immediately dispatch rescuers to save your friend.
While you may be tempted to jump in and rescue your buddy yourself, this is the worst idea, as you might end up triggering another avalanche.
The next thing you need to do after surviving an avalanche is seek medical attention.
All in all, the risk of avalanches should discourage you from hitting the slopes, as there are ways to be safe and stay alive when caught in one.
Why Do Avalanches Occur Mostly in Colorado’s Mountains?
While Colorado’s Mountains offer the best skiing destinations for skiers across the world, the state is ranked as one of the most dangerous when it comes to avalanches.
According to USAToday, 10 people died in avalanches while skiing during the 2020-21 season in Colorado. This is quite a big number compared to other states like Utah, which had six fatalities, or California, which had only one death resulting from avalanches.
Some of the factors contributing to avalanche deaths in Colorado’s Mountains include the higher number of skiers the state receives every season and the weather conditions.
Along with skiers, there are many outdoor enthusiasts who engage in the various winter activities in Colorado’s Mountains, from snowboarding to snowmobiling.
The local weather in Colorado during the ski season also causes the snow to pack itself loosely on the slopes, which in turn leads to avalanche formation.
If you are planning to ski in Colorado’s Mountains next winter, you’ll want to be extra careful, especially if drier weather follows the snowfall.
Another major reason why avalanches in Colorado’s Mountains claim more lives is that more people are exposed to snow hazards during the ski season.
Lots of people undertake backcountry adventures during the cold season, and such expeditions expose them to avalanche hazards.
With that said, backcountry skiing enthusiasts are always advised to take an avalanche course before heading to explore the untouched terrain.
Is Slab Avalanche the Most Dangerous?
Yes, slab avalanches are the most dangerous. In fact, dry slab avalanches account for a significant percentage of all the fatalities that occur due to avalanches.
What makes slab layer avalanches hazardous for slope users is that they roll like a dinner plate at high speed, sweeping and burying everything the slide comes across.
Slab dry avalanches are usually large solid plates of snow slides, rolling as a unit above the weaker and loose snow.
The enormous plate shatters like glass as the avalanche rolls downhill, and if you get caught in the middle of such slides, there is no coming out unless you obtain immediate help from rescuers.
How Do You Identify Avalanche Terrain?
For most avalanche fatalities, most victims fall into the slide without actually knowing that they followed an avalanche path. But you might wonder, what is avalanche terrain?
Well, avalanche terrains refer to slopes that are steep enough to let snow layers slide under the right conditions.
When warm temperatures follow heavy snowfall, natural avalanches occur mainly in steep terrain as there is rapid melting and the snow surface becomes weak.
The best way to identify avalanche slopes is by checking the slope steepness. You can bring an inclinometer to see whether the area you want to ski has a high risk of an avalanche accident.
Slopes that are less than 30 degrees angle are usually safe as they are not steep enough to produce avalanches naturally.
While avalanches can occur on almost flat terrain, slopes steeper than 30 degrees or between 30 to 45 degrees angle tend to have a higher avalanche risk.
The slope is usually a static contributing factor for most avalanches, but there are other factors like the weather, snowpack, and traffic also known to cause avalanche accidents.
Warm weather produces avalanches more than cold weather conditions, as it causes the snow to melt and creates wet avalanches.
Strong winds during a snowfall can also result in multiple avalanche-starting zones as it prevents the snow from packing tightly on the surface. Wind erodes snow grains before they even settle on the ground.
The wind-blown snow may then attach to a loosely packed snow surface and pose potential avalanche accidents for slope users.
You can also look at the vegetation to estimate the avalanche safety of a terrain. In this case, mature evergreen trees point toward a safe terrain, while trees with broken branches indicate an avalanche blasting area.
Missing branches show that avalanches occur in that terrain. This may not tell you specifically about the danger you might face today or tomorrow when riding on such slopes, but at least you will know that the area has had past avalanches.
Q: How Do Skiers Trigger Avalanches?
A: Skiers trigger avalanches by adding more weight to weak snow layers, causing them to break and roll down the mountain.
When skiing in ski resorts, chances of triggering avalanches on the slopes are minimal since the resort’s ski patrol monitors and maintains the runs.
Avalanches occur mainly on backcountry terrain when skiers ride and traverse ungroomed terrain, and most of them lead to the death of those who trigger them.
If you want to go skiing off-piste and realize that the ground seems unstable, it is prudent to avoid such a slope and look for another area, as you might end up causing an avalanche.
Q: How Do Skiers Avoid Avalanches?
A: Skiers can avoid avalanches in several ways, including checking the snowfall, skiing on safe slopes, walking slowly on avalanche potential areas, and checking the vegetation.
If there has been a recent snowfall and the weather starts to warm up, you should be more careful and ski only in areas labeled safe for skiers.
And if you want to take on a challenge to the backcountry terrain, stay away from steep slopes of between 30 to 45 degrees angle as they are the most likely to have avalanches.
Checking the vegetation can also help you avoid avalanches, as you’ll know whether an area has had avalanches in the past.
If the thick trees on the slope have broken branches or you see flag trees around, you might be standing in the middle of an avalanche path.
Q: Can You Cause an Avalanche by Yelling?
A: No, you cannot cause an avalanche by yelling. Loud noise doesn’t necessarily cause avalanches unless the noise is associated with enough force, such as an explosion.
In the past, people believed that too much noise on the slopes can dislodge snow and cause an avalanche. However, this is just a myth.
Q: How Do People Die When Buried in Avalanche Debris?
A: When someone gets buried in avalanche debris and dies, the fatality doesn’t necessarily result from the snow itself. This is because about 60% of the avalanche debris is usually air.
However, the victim tends to panic and breathe faster, causing more carbon dioxide to surround their face while below the snow.
Almost all avalanche fatalities usually result from carbon dioxide poisoning, which the avalanche victims experience while buried in the snow.
In general, many factors can contribute to an avalanche, and skiing is just one of them. Luckily, avalanches are rare in maintained slopes and ski areas with an avalanche control team.
Avalanche reports are infrequent in groomed ski runs as most accidents usually happen on the backcountry terrain.
Recognizing whether a ski terrain poses a threat of avalanche accidents is vital as you’ll be able to stay safe or walk away from such terrain, and get back home at the end of the day.
If you want to explore the snowy backcountry terrain, taking an avalanche training course is crucial for your safety. Don’t forget to bring an avalanche beacon, a shovel, and an avalanche probe!