Going Skiing in the Backcountry? Avalanche Survival Tips from an Expert

by  Blane Bachelor | Dec 15, 2011
Skier in Aspen, CO
Skier in Aspen, CO / iStock

Tips on avalanche safety while skiing or snowboarding in the back country.

In the wee hours before a ski resort opens, while you’re deep in dreams of fresh powder, plenty of hardy souls are already out on the slopes, making sure they’re safe. For 17 seasons, Will Paden has been an avalanche forecaster at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. During ski season, Paden and his coworkers scrutinize weather reports, scope out the mountains for hazards, and use careful and time-tested techniques, including explosives, to mitigate avalanche risks long before the resort opens. Here, we spoke to Paden, who’s also on Squaw Valley’s Ski Patrol, about what his job is like – and what everybody who ventures into the backcountry on skis should know about avalanches.

An avalanche forecaster is a pretty cool job title. What’s a typical workday like for you?
On big snow days, we wake up very early. We show up before sunrise and try to get an accurate forecast on how much snow is falling, what the weather is doing, what kind of avalanche forecasts might be out there. Then around 5:45am we have our morning meeting and, depending on what kind of avalanches we might expect to see, if any, we all spread out and go up the mountain.

Then the fun really begins! Tell us about how you actually do the “avalanche control.”
Every time it snows, we use explosives to knock down the new snow that’s accumulated. The idea is that we knock down that new snow before it builds up as a hazard. At Squaw we do all of the explosive work by hand. We ski down ridgelines and throw explosives down to where we think we’ll trigger an avalanche. We call those areas start zones. And we set out in teams of two: The idea is that somebody is always there to help. On a high hazard day, we might use as many as 500 shots of explosives. We always try to have the ski area open on time, which doesn’t always happen, but we do try our best.

Are there any tricks of the trade in how you throw an explosive?
If the surface of the snow is firm, you might lob it high in the air with a bit of backspin so it sticks. If the start zone is a bit far away, you throw it a bit harder. The explosives are 2 inches by 14 inches, so you can imagine throwing something like a little round stick.

Are there other ways to trigger an avalanche?
Ski cutting is a technique that we use when the avalanche is on the small side. The idea is to ski across the start zone with speed, cutting diagonally across the slope, and push on the slope to get the avalanche to start under your skis. You’re trying to get it to release underneath so that it falls downhill, while you stay above it. We typically use this technique when we can feel the surface of the old layer.

What’s the scariest part of the job?
The fear of getting caught in an avalanche, and the fear of the public getting caught in an avalanche in terrain that is your responsibility to control. We all take a lot of pride in opening the ski area safely and on time.

More people are skiing and boarding in the backcountry than ever before. So what should you do if you’re a caught in avalanche in the backcountry?
The first thing is try to not to get caught. Snow picks up speed very quickly, but the few seconds at the beginning are your best time to get out of it. A little bit of speed can be your friend – move to the side [of the avalanche] on a downward traverse. If you’re not able to do that, what you want to do is remain as upright as possible and fight to stay near the surface of the avalanche. If that doesn’t work, and you’ve lost your gear and you’re tumbling, keep in mind that after things stop moving, the snow sets quickly, like concrete. If you get a sense that the avalanche is slowing, you want to create an airspace around your mouth, and if possible push up an arm. But really try to stay on ahead or on top of it – the historical stats are that 80 percent of people survive if they are not buried.

Any other backcountry avalanche survival tips?
There are a few things you can do to prepare yourself, and they’re all important. The first is knowledge, educating yourself, and having the right gear: a snow shovel, beacon, probe, an Avalung or an airbag. [Editor’s note: Paden disclosed that he sells such devices.] Check the local avalanche forecast, which does a great job. And you can also ask the local ski patrol. They’re very up-to-date with the local conditions and take pride in helping people.

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