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By Ben Beckerich
From saint helens, oregon
Mar 7, 2012
About half way up the East Arete on Illumination Rock

Howdy

I've been learning a lot about avy hazard and safety this winter, being my first winter of winter alpining.

I've noticed something - for all the emphasis put on avy hazard and avy classes and avy safety and avy equipment, avalanches seem to be extremely rare, avalanches triggered by people even rarer, avalanches that kill people super rare, and climber-triggered avalanches that kill climbers even rarer.

I'm not looking for a technical discussion, so I'm not going to waste time googleing exact numbers, but off the top of my head, I believe the worldwide average annual avalanche fatality figure is right around 150, and most of those are skiers. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we seem to average about 7 human-triggered avalanches a year, most of which are back country skiers and snowboarders, and just looking over these reports, it looks like we average 1 death per year. Obviously some years or worse than others (this year has already seen 5 avy fatalities- all ski/snowboard).

I don't know how many people climb... but in the PNW corner of the US alone, I'm gonna say it's thousands of climbers who climb in the winter... Rainier, Baker, Hood, Adams, for the big ones, plus the dozens of smaller, steeper, much more technical 6k and 7k peaks that are really ONLY climbable in the winter, etc... It's a lot of people out there, and only 1 of them is triggering an avalanche every year, and usually not dying from it.

So I'm interested on hearing other climbers' views on what all this means...

Either avalanches are just not NEARLY as prevalent and dangerous as we're always told, or people simply take avalanche hazard very fucking seriously and almost never climb when conditions are elevated... Since I never climb when the forecast is for elevated avy conditions, I can't say... I have no idea if other people are out there climbing when I'm sitting at home wishing I was climbing, but won't because the forecast is for wet-slab hazard under splitter skies and warm sun..

Thoughts?


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By Ben Sachs
Mar 7, 2012

I've had very similar questions as a noob backcountry skiier. I see people skiing lines that seem to fall well within the danger zone, even on higher risk days. All these people can't be total daredevils, putting their lives at extreme risk just for some fresh turns. I think the danger is overblown, but I guess that does nothing for you when the slope starts to slide. I feel like, living in CO, I might never get to ski in the backcountry if I wait for "good" avy conditions. Interested to hear other people's takes on this.


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By Brian Scoggins
From Eugene, OR
Mar 7, 2012

Part of it is that climbers are most interested in either terrain that is lower angle, or higher angle, than the realm where most human triggered avalanches occur. Also, the best conditions for skiing often coincides with the most dangerous avalanche conditions, whereas the best climbing conditions often coincide with the safest avalanche conditions. Finally, while the PNW does have a lot of climbers moving around in the winter, that number is absolutely dwarfed by the number of other snow-sport enthusiasts, especially those unaware of avy risk.

For what its worth, avalanches are much, MUCH more dangerous in the Rockies. We lose, on average 6-7 people a year in Colorado, comparable numbers in Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. We've even had ice climbers killed on technical routes out here. Slab avalanches are not as prevalent in the PNW as in the Rockies, and that's part of the reason why you don't hear about as many avalanche deaths in your area.


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By Crag Dweller
From New York, NY
Mar 7, 2012
My navigator keeps me from getting lost

It must be nice living up in the Cascades. In Colorado, avalanches are not what I'd call rare.


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By Brian Scoggins
From Eugene, OR
Mar 7, 2012

Ben Sachs wrote:
I've had very similar questions as a noob backcountry skiier. I see people skiing lines that seem to fall well within the danger zone, even on higher risk days. All these people can't be total daredevils, putting their lives at extreme risk just for some fresh turns. I think the danger is overblown, but I guess that does nothing for you when the slope starts to slide. I feel like, living in CO, I might never get to ski in the backcountry if I wait for "good" avy conditions. Interested to hear other people's takes on this.


I've definitely encountered truly terrifying conditions in the backcountry, on a "high" day. That is, we'd hear a whumph, and see all of the snow in a 15' radius collapse around us, then move 15' further, just to see it happen again. Happened all day in the shade. I've also seen those conditions mellow considerably once we got into sun baked areas.

I'll bet you weren't privy to those skiers' evaluation process, nor were you digging the same pits they were.

Its important to note that the avalanche forecast is not an absolute statement on snow stability, its an estimate for a wide variety of areas. Its still up to you to evaluate the data in front of you and make a decision. "High" is not a reason to stay home, but it is definitely a reason to plan your route carefully, employ the training you have to make a reasonable decision.

If your "I won't ski today" limit is "considerable", you might never see a human triggered slide. I don't really see that as an argument for taking more risk though.


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By Owen Darrow
From Garmisch,
Mar 7, 2012
Nice view

Ben Sachs wrote:
I feel like, living in CO, I might never get to ski in the backcountry if I wait for "good" avy conditions. Interested to hear other people's takes on this.

When I was living in CO I got use to going out on considerable days because that was the avi forecast from October to April. Scary to do but you just have to stick to the trees and low angle stuff.


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By Taylor-B.
From CO & AK
Mar 7, 2012
Mt. Churchill, University Range

Avalanches are very common, no matter what region you play in whether in the PNW or the Rockies. People get away with avalanche roulette way to much and a lot of those close calls aren't even reported.. Personally I've lost a few friends in avi's and have been on a few SAR missions and seen plenty of victims role through the ER I work in.
Avalanche theory is a black science and hard to predict-"spacial variability". Check out the lemons and yellow flag guidelines for snow stability. And read a lot of case studies to learn from other peoples mistakes. Take lots of classes, read avi forcasts, go to seminars.
Don't be fooled be all that techy shit like air bags, avi lungs, beacons and CPR doesnt work worth a shit either. It seems as if the trend in the mountains these days is the "blind leading the blind."
Be patient for the right conditions and always be afraid and educated.


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By Scott M. McNamara
From Tucson, Arizona
Mar 7, 2012
One Way Sunset

So far this year, in the United States twenty-five (25) people have been killed in avalanches.

avalanche.state.co.us/acc/acc_us.php

From 1950 to 2010 the numbers seem to keep going up.

avalanche.state.co.us/acc/acc_images/Slide9.JPG

Have fun, but pay attention out there.

Scott Mc


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By Phillip Morris
From Flavor Country
Mar 8, 2012
1234

Avalanche risk is not something to be taken lightly.

Steve Romeo was an extremely experienced and savvy ski mountaineer.

He is unfortunately no longer with us


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By TheBirdman
From Eldorado Springs, Colorado
Mar 8, 2012

I will say this: I backcountry snowboard and alpine climb all the time. Just last week I was heading up Mayflower Gulch and ended up talking with a guy who claimed he had dug more people out of avalanches than anyone in North America. Now, I have no clue if he was telling the truth, but there was a salient bit that popped out of his mouth. He said, "You can do all the avalanche training you want, if you see one, it's already too late." The point being that all the avy training in the world won't ever do you any better than just exercising good judgment.

I live in CO. Although people complain because unlike AK where snow will bond to 80 degree slopes, really anything above 45 degrees in CO sluffs off. This means the danger zone is really between 30-45 degree slopes. On days where avy danger is high, stay off the riskier slopes. Climbers and skiers are alike at least as far as their desire to push the limits. Seeing as how my passion is climbing and snowboarding is just a winter substitute to take advantage of the snow, I never have a hard time passing on a line that looks questionable. I choose to take my risks running it out 40 feet on an alpine climb, soloing the 1st Flatiron, whatever it may be.

The point of this whole post is backcountry skiing, alpine climbing, and avalanches are only as dangerous as you allow them to be. Exercising good judgment and mitigating the risk is a better bet than a shovel, probe, and beacon any day of the week.


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By Cory
From Boise, ID
Mar 8, 2012
Relaxing in the Tuttle Creek Campground after a fun day in the Hills

It can happen when you're climbing too. willgadd.com/?p=600


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By Scott Krankkala
Mar 8, 2012
Climbing Trail Creek

The largest concern with ice climbing and alpine climbing is proper assessment of the avalanche hazard. As most ice climbs are below enormous bowls, there is a certain amount of subjective hazard that is encountered. For this reason, many climbers with experience will choose not to climb when there is a possibility of natural avalanches. However there are still several incidents each year that involve incredibly experienced climbers dying or having very close calls due to avalanches above them, ie. Guy Lacelle,

.

The primary difference comes down to amount of users and the affect on the snowpack. Skiers and snowmobilers directly affect the snowpack and dramatically increase the risk of triggering an avalanche. As far as climbing large routes, most of the time is spent on ridges scoured from high winds, not the large windloaded steep bowls. In terms of skiing, good terrain is in the areas that are more likely to slide.

Basically while there are a lot of alpine climbers, the traffic of skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers in avalanche terrain is incredibly higher. even the 1-2 deaths per year of alpinists in america is likely a higher ratio based on user percentage than other backcountry travelers. The other large issue is that it is not practical to carry avalanche rescue equipment in addition to technical gear.

Morale of the story is be aware of conditions, do not climb during a natural avalanche cycle or elevated danger, have fun and be safe.


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By Adam B
From Wheat Ridge, CO
Mar 8, 2012
Middle St. Vrain

First of all, the snowpack in the PNW is way different than the snow pack in a place like CO or UT. I may not say safer, but have you heard the term Cascade Concrete? I know you only have to dig to the bottom of the last snow event up there, but in CO you dig to the ground.

In CO, it seems unnecessary risk is being taken by A LOT by BC skiers/boarders. Almost to the point that I think WOW do people even check the forcast (like going out on red days when winds were gusting at 80 mph the day prior).

In CO avalanches ARE VERY prevalent, and people die in slides, but again, most of if not all of them are skiers. Maybe it's that climbers are better able to choose terrain that is safe to travel even when the risk is reported considerable. Skiers don't have that choice if you want steep powder. This is essentially what the previous post is stating.


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By Tristan B
From La Crescenta, CA
Mar 8, 2012
Hanging out on Royal Arches

I just took an Avy class in Bishop. The snowpack sucks this year and when we went out it was low, but we still found some areas where there were weak layers and wind loaded slabs. So even though it was low, there were still places for small slides.

Also I think a big thing is the over confidence factor. "I have a beacon, probe, avalung and air bag, so F-it, lets do this"


But really when you look at it a few deaths per year isn't bad. How many car accident deaths are there per day?!?


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By divnamite
From New York, NY
Mar 8, 2012

Tristan B wrote:
But really when you look at it a few deaths per year isn't bad. How many car accident deaths are there per day?!?

There are 30,797 fatal motor vehicle (excluding motorcycle) accidents in 2009 according to NHTSA. It's average of 84.38 deaths per day.


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By Martin le Roux
From Superior, CO
Mar 8, 2012
Stairway to Heaven

Part of this is the psychology of risk aversion. Most people have a disproportionate fear of low-frequency, catastrophic events than would be warranted by a statistical comparison to high-frequency events with less severe consequences. For example, airplane crashes vs car accidents; radioactive leaks from nuclear power plants vs C02 emissions from coal-fired plants; or for climbers, dying in avalanche vs breaking an ankle in a lead fall.


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By Brian in SLC
Mar 8, 2012
Climbing in Smuggler's Notch

Ben B. wrote:
I've noticed something - for all the emphasis put on avy hazard and avy classes and avy safety and avy equipment, avalanches seem to be extremely rare...


Maybe rare where you are...but...not out here:

utahavalanchecenter.org/services/avalanchelist


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By Buff Johnson
Mar 8, 2012
smiley face

Ben B. wrote:
Howdy I've been learning a lot about avy hazard and safety this winter, being my first winter of winter alpining. I've noticed something - for all the emphasis put on avy hazard and avy classes and avy safety and avy equipment, avalanches seem to be extremely rare, avalanches triggered by people even rarer, avalanches that kill people super rare, and climber-triggered avalanches that kill climbers even rarer. ... I don't know how many people climb... but in the PNW corner of the US alone, I'm gonna say it's thousands of climbers who climb in the winter... Rainier, Baker, Hood, Adams, for the big ones, plus the dozens of smaller, steeper, much more technical 6k and 7k peaks that are really ONLY climbable in the winter, etc... It's a lot of people out there, and only 1 of them is triggering an avalanche every year, and usually not dying from it. So I'm interested on hearing other climbers' views on what all this means... Either avalanches are just not NEARLY as prevalent and dangerous as we're always told, or people simply take avalanche hazard very fucking seriously and almost never climb when conditions are elevated... ... Thoughts?


Basically that's all more than likely correct. Avalanches are uncommon, getting buried during a slide is rare, suffering fatal trauma even more rare. But all that happens, just the same. Colorado has 6 or so front range SAR teams with a significant growth in call-outs over the past five years (approx). You can certainly argue numbers that there are far more people out participating in the mountains that certainly more accidents will be seen.

Traveling in terrain without any knowledge whatsoever, even in prevalent slide conditions, 95% of the time, nothing happens. But, that doesn't mean nothing bad will ever happen. In fact, you can take that 95% and do a quick and dirty stat calc, and say, if that 5% of the time ended in tragedy, you'd be dead in a couple of months. Some people don't perform any education, and go by Hemingway's existentialism, nothing happens; others have done everything they could have, and are now dead.

Avalanches are as much a danger as you've been told. What changes over time will be your decision making process in acceptable risk.

So yes, for some, the education, safety equipment, training, buddy tactics, route selection, you can manage acceptable risk down to 0.0001% -- but there is still risk involved.

You don't necessarily need to be in extremely technical terrain or have big monster slabs cut loose with huge powder flumes rocketing down a mountain to get hit. Most I've seen look like rather innocuous slopes where people had the education and training to avoid a problem, but still committed to the danger or just didn't want to deal with the instructed safety protocol even though there were ominous signs all over the place.

Most accidents in avy have a foundation in psychology and decision making process gauging risk inappropriately or suffering from some sort of bias, than an unforeseen objective hazard from the mountain itself. The one thing I have seen instructed the most, regardless of anything else to manage risk, you absolutely do not want to ever get caught in a avalanche.


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By Evan S
From Erie, CO
Mar 8, 2012
Me, of course

Many, many small and medium slides are triggered and go unreported all the time. I've kicked off and been in countless little things over the last 10 years, in the back country, side country, and in bounds (actually the worst slide I have been caught in, thanks for slacking off Breck ski patrol!).


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By superkick
From West Hartford, CT
Mar 9, 2012
Free Solo up hitchcock gully WI3

"I've noticed something - for all the emphasis put on avy hazard and avy classes and avy safety and avy equipment, avalanches seem to be extremely rare, avalanches triggered by people even rarer, avalanches that kill people super rare, and climber-triggered avalanches that kill climbers even rarer."

Where I climb regularly, huntington Ravine on Mt washington, in new hampshire. That mofo is constantly avalanching, and often has potential for human caused avalanches. I guess It really depends on the weather. All winter we have constantly been getting days of rain, followed by 6-8 inches on top, warm days, a few more inches, etc etc, which spells for lots of slab avalanche potential and nasty conditions.

Anytime there is fresh powder on top of a formed layer it has a high risk potential. After a storm, either hope for very high winds to move all that shit / compact it down, or give it a day or 2 to compact. Luckily for us out here, we have rangers who tests those slopes daily and give us reports. Most people arent this lucky where they climb / ski in the backcuntry and have to make their own decisions. Its very advisablke to take a course, and go out with more experienced people who can show you patterns to look for.


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By superkick
From West Hartford, CT
Mar 9, 2012
Free Solo up hitchcock gully WI3

Also many many famous / awe inpsiring alpinists have been taken out by avalanches. While Id say snow bridge hiding crevasses are a much more in your face danger, avalnches present a very real risk.

As was said prior though, if youre only climbing when conditions have been posted as low, likely hood yu may never see one. Unless you stupidly manage to cause one.. or soemone climbing a route above you does.


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By Morgan Patterson
Administrator
Mar 9, 2012
Stoked...

I think a lot of the stats are probably also going to keep going up since BC has now become the idol of the masses... I think the emphasis on avy training and education is quite necessary and not extreme at all.

That dude Ed is a beast in that vid... incredibly good video to show folks wtf can happen.


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By csproul
From Rancho Cordova, CA
Mar 9, 2012
Summit of Wolf's Head with Pingora in the background

I'm not very knowledgeable about avalanches. I took a couple classes over a decade ago when I lived and climbed in CO. I haven't really lived in avalanche country since then...but when I took my avalanche course the instructor told us that all that pit digging was virtually useless (at least with our basic level of training). He basically said that the pit is so dependent on location that the conditions at the pit could be drastically different than the conditions a few hundred feet away from it. We learned how to do it, but were basically told not to put too much stock in what we saw. We were taught to look for much more obvious signs/conditions (visible signs of avalanche/debris, heavy snows over recently wind-packed slabs...). Any of you avy experts care to comment on this?

Also, one comment above struck me. Someone said that climber's terrain is generally too steep for snow to stick to (greater than 45 degrees). Even if that is true, there is often a shallow bowl of snow right above ice climbs that could potentially funnel right down the ice that you're climbing. I guess I'm just reminding myself that it is important to think about the terrain above you (even if it is not clearly visible) and not just about that terrain you are climbing.


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By Buff Johnson
Mar 9, 2012
smiley face

Trend conditions over the course of days; look for clues of recent slide activity.
Always know what's above your route.
Watch for rollerballs & rockfall conducive with heat transfer in rock which indicate catastrophic release in natural activity.
Don't accept that since everything traveled up to a given point has been stable, that everything else continuing forward will also be stable.
Recognize your own bias, team bias, and question it.

If you are really putting it out there in risk acceptance, then pray for some luck that the serac above you won't cut loose and move fast.


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By Drew Gibson
From Frisco, CO
Mar 9, 2012

csproul wrote:
...but when I took my avalanche course the instructor told us that all that pit digging was virtually useless (at least with our basic level of training). He basically said that the pit is so dependent on location that the conditions at the pit could be drastically different than the conditions a few hundred feet away from it. We learned how to do it, but were basically told not to put too much stock in what we saw. We were taught to look for much more obvious signs/conditions (visible signs of avalanche/debris, heavy snows over recently wind-packed slabs...).

That's absolutely right. You cannot take a 1/1,000,000 sample and say you have all the info. We never teach pit digging and results to be a cornerstone of the decision making process. Just like Rowdy mentioned it's a matter of spacial variability. There are times when we won't even dig a pit because we have observed things that turn us around or give us the green light. It's more about having a holistic knowledge of the snow. Not only does it take a hell of a lot of experience to be able to go out dig pits, take observations and really be able to get a handle on what's going on, it takes a great deal of humility to know that you could be wrong. No take backs with Mother Nature.


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By Joe C.
From Colorado Springs, CO
Mar 9, 2012
Playin Hookey playin hard to get once again.

Well needless to say but if you want to learn more and see more evidence of avalanches come out here to Utah/Colorado. There are thousands of reported avalanches in these two places each winter and thousands more that go unreported. This year in Colorado has been one of the worst snowpacks I can remember probably since I have been playing in the backcountry 12+ years... Check out ours or Utah's avalanche sites for a taste of what our snowpacks are like. Keep in mind that our avalanche activity are the lowest they have been all season.

avalanche.state.co.us/index.php

utahavalanchecenter.org/


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