By Scott Schell
Snowshoeing is the wintertime equivalent to summer’s hiking, right? Or is it? Heading out onto your favorite trail with snowshoes on your feet may seem like a good idea, but avalanche conditions may not warrant safe travel. Before venturing out this winter, you should educate yourself on how to properly read wintertime terrain, as well as understand the risks associated with traveling through it. Here, we’ll look at the basics of recognizing avalanche terrain.
One of the great things about snowshoeing is its simplicity—at least of the sport itself. There’s no doubt that the barrier of entry to snowshoeing is a lot less than backcountry skiing—you don’t need to learn how to snowshoe (it’s just walking); and you don’t need a bunch of complicated equipment. There’s a lot of beauty in this simplicity. However, if we translate that simplistic mindset to travel techniques in the mountains, it can lead us down the wrong path—quite literally.
Typically, the route-finding process for snowshoers is to grab a guidebook or consult an online resource to pick a destination. Often, these resources point people to popular summer trails for low-commitment, high-reward outings. And sure, this is a great way to get into the sport.
But before heading out into the winter hills, there are a couple of things to consider. First, will your intended route take you through avalanche terrain? To answer this, we need to take a step back and look at what avalanche terrain is—we can’t avoid something we can’t recognize. Fortunately, we also can’t get caught in an avalanche if we’re not in avalanche terrain. It’s actually that simple.
Defining avalanche terrain by slope incline
Avalanche-prone slopes are generally regarded as slopes angled 30 degrees and above—that’s the angle at which snow will initiate and slide. So if your route takes you across slopes of 30 degrees or more, you’re in avalanche terrain.
But that’s only part of the story. In fact, we can break avalanche terrain up into three components or “zones.” They include the Start Zone, the Track, and the Run-out. The Start zone lies, as you may guess, somewhere on that 30+ degree slope. Given the right conditions, an avalanche can start in this zone if triggered by a natural event or an unnatural one, like a human crossing the slope.
The other two zones—the Track and Run-out—lie below the start zone. They’re the zones the avalanche will pass through before it comes to a stop. The Track may be well below 30 degrees in pitch and the Run-out may be completely flat, but because they lie in the path of a potential avalanche, they’re considered within the bounds of avalanche terrain.
When it comes to snowshoeing in particular, we see a higher percentage of avalanche incidents occurring in the Track or Run-out rather than in the Start zones. This is partially due to how snowshoers move through the backcountry in contrast to skiers and splitboarders. Skiers and splitboarders’ equipment allows them to much more easily and quickly access those high-pitch Start zones. Snowshoers, on the other hand, tend to stay in lower terrain.
For these reasons, you need to evaluate whether using your favorite summer trails as winter routes is a safe decision. Oftentimes it is. But in the wrong conditions, the steeper terrain connected above may extend the danger down into your route. Unlike the summer when the terrain above you has little to no impact on your trail, in the winter, knowing what’s above you is paramount. Always ask yourself: Are there slopes that are angled 30+ degree located above me? Am I traveling through the Track or Run-out of a potential avalanche?
Defining avalanche terrain by terrain features
Being able to identify large, steep and open topography as avalanche terrain is not too difficult—even for the inexperienced. But there are many more subtle features that pose a threat. Terrain features such as gullies, road cuts, and subtle micro-terrain characteristics—in the right conditions—can prove dangerous. In poorly defined avalanche terrain, the start zone, track, and run-out are often indistinguishable from one another and many popular hiking routes travel through these areas. Developing a keen sense of micro avalanche terrain is a skill that will help keep you safe. To build these skills and learn much more about navigating this terrain, we advise that you take an avalanche education course. You can find a listing of course providers here http://avtraining.org/ and here http://www.avalanche.org/education.php.
This brings us full circle to our intended route and our planning resources. If we want to ensure that we’re not caught in an avalanche we can do one thing: avoid avalanche terrain.
But what if there’s a possibility that we will be traveling through avalanche terrain? First, read the avalanche bulletin from the local avalanche center for the day’s forecast and risk level. Next, pack the appropriate safety gear.
On all outings, the 10 Essentials is a great benchmark for packables—particularly extra clothing and food this time of year. But for avalanche gear? Avalanche gear is considered your transceiver, probe and shovel.
And the topic of whether to bring avalanche safety gear can be hotly debated among snowshoe partners. In fact, questions like these commonly arise: Do we even need our avalanche safety gear? Should we all have it, or just some of us?
Here’s a quick tip to solve the debate. Ask your group this: Will you be traveling in, or through, avalanche terrain? If you won’t—and you can guarantee you won’t—then it’s simple, you don’t need your transceiver, probe and shovel. If your route does take you through avalanche terrain, then you—and everyone in your group—need all three pieces of safety equipment along with the knowledge and training to use them.
If you find yourself at the trailhead and someone in the group lacks the proper equipment, then you should make it a point avoid avalanche terrain, period.
We’ve discussed the importance of terrain recognition and having the right gear and knowledge to travel through the winter backcountry. But these endeavors are experiential, requiring guidance and practice. Taking an avalanche class with a field component is one of the best ways to gain this experience. Remember, it’s up to you, your partners, and everyone’s situational awareness to stay safe out there—because during the wintertime, the snow provides a blank route-finding canvas for you to choose your own destination. So, choose wisely.
For more tips, check out MSR’s backcountry basics safety tips.
More online resources can be found at the bottom of Plan it Like a Pro—Strengthening Your Pre-Season Backcountry Brain
Here’s to a safe winter!
Scott is the Program Director of the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) in charge of the education program and observers network. He is a certified AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide who has guided throughout the US, Alaska, Canada, and Europe. He is a former AMGA ski discipline instructor and AMGA Board Member. An avid ski mountaineer, Scott has been involved in avalanche and guiding education for over 16 years. He is an Instructor and Instructor Trainer for AIARE. Scott is the co-author of Backcountry Skiing, Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering.
Originally published December 17th, 2014.