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Here are a few things to know about avalanche survival in the backcountry.

A precarious snowpack and an explosion of backpackers in the backcountry have fuelled a rash of fatalities this season. Let's go over the necessary details about avalanche protection.

This winter, skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobile enthusiasts who seek a respite from the tension of the pandemic head into the backcountry terrain, which unlike ski resorts is not patrolled or mitigated for avalanches. This year's dangerous snowpack has dealt yet another blow to the population of outdoor enthusiasts.

The Uintas and Salt Lake regions were highlighted in black on the Utah Avalanche Center's danger map this week, suggesting that these regions were at “extreme” risk. The Avalanche Center posted an image to Instagram which suggested that both natural and human-triggered avalanches would occur over the next few days.

A massive slab of snow fell on two snowmobilers on Tuesday in Northern Colorado; one of them was totally buried and did not survive. Two people in Colorado and one person in Montana were killed in separate avalanches on Sunday, the same day a man in Montana was dragged into the woods by an avalanche near Big Sky and later died of his injuries. The deadliest avalanche in the US since 2014 happened in Utah on February 6, when four skiers were killed.

A backcountry avalanche hazard checkpoint is located at the Uneva Peak Trailhead above Vail Pass, Colorado.
A backcountry avalanche hazard checkpoint is located at the Uneva Peak Trailhead above Vail Pass, Colorado.

For the entire 2016-2017 season, 23 people were killed in avalanches in the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. To date this season, a total of 26 people have died in avalanches in the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

One of our retired forecasters, Chad Brackelsberg, told us that “our snowpack in Utah is currently very weak.”

He claimed that early-season heavy snowfall was followed by a lengthy dry spell, leaving a “sugary” foundation of soft snow that made it particularly susceptible to warm temperatures. More recent snowstorms have delivered a foot of soft powder on top of a vulnerable base.

Mr. Brackelsberg asserted that even the most seasoned backcountry explorers could find themselves in a fatal avalanche, as conditions were “difficult to predict.”

It doesn't matter what your experience level is; being caught off guard is very easy, he said.

Although multiple of those who were killed in the avalanches were veteran backcountry skiers, novices are still venturing into the backcountry. It appears that backcountry skis have been selling like hotcakes during the H1N1 pandemic, but many customers were unaware that they should also be buying basic avalanche protection equipment or avalanche courses in order to stay healthy.

Bear in mind the following things if you are going into the backcountry.

Learn how to survive an avalanche.

Many avalanche education centers have online programs such as Utah's Know Before You Go online modules. Brackelsberg added that online programs are “introductory knowledge and skills refreshers.”

Even so, he pointed out, they're not an appropriate replacement for an on-snow class, where you can see the snow structure up close.

I've learned a lot from the in-person avalanche courses I've taken, including those from the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education (AIARE). One thing I've learned is how to identify possible hazards in the backcountry, including a poor snowpack, and how to recognize avalanche terrain, among other skills. In keeping with the institute's dedication to responsible education, it maintains a list of the classes, which are mainly provided by private outfitter companies.

Equip yourself with the appropriate equipment, and then learn how to use it.

Many avalanche safety experts concur and conclude that any backpacker venturing into the backcountry should carry a shovel, a beacon, and a probe. A beacon that emits a radio signal and can pick up other beacons' signals, is useful if you find yourself in an avalanche, and if others find you, it will allow both of you to find each other. An inflatable metal probe can be used to find anyone buried in the snow, after which a shovel is used to retrieve them.

In the case of an avalanche, avalanche bags (another survival tool) inflate like huge airbags, making it easier to float above snow and debris. Electronic powering or canister-powered compressed air are options.

However, to reach the backcountry safely, you will not only need the right gear, but also basic skills. Mr. Brackelsberg also said that “practicing and training on your own” is important, alongside taking an avalanche course.

The materials required to learn to use a beacon, a shovel, and a probe as well as the equipment needed to deploy an avalanche bag are included. A beacon training park in the White River National Forest in Colorado that was built last year has beacons buried in the snow that can be turned on by a control panel, simulating the use of a beacon for training purposes.

Decide when, and if, to leave the safety of your environment.

Prior to embarking on a backcountry trip, Mr. Brackelsberg cautioned, it is necessary to first ensure that the day is “the right day to go out,” based on one's ability level and the current weather conditions.

It is vital that people check the local avalanche forecasts every day, not just on the days they intend to go into the backcountry, as this will allow them to become more familiar with the avalanche conditions in the region. That will help us determine whether to move into the backcountry, ski at a resort, or stay home.

Mr. Brackelsberg reported that the Utah Avalanche Center has experienced a record-breaking amount of website operation, which offers regular forecasts. Although the center has more than tripled the website's capacity this season, the site was inaccessible on Tuesday (it also sent avalanche warnings on social media). He noticed that the amount of activity on the site was a positive sign, showing that people were making themselves aware of avalanche danger.

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