If you trigger an avalanche when just standing in the middle of the avalanche path, have almost no chance to escape off the moving slab. Trigger an avalanche. That is why for years, ski patrollers and helicopter ski guides have used what they call ski cuts as an effective technique to reduce the chances of getting caught. I like to use the more inclusive term slope cuts, because snowboarders and snowmobilers can do them as well.
If you trigger an avalanche, practice slope cuts
The idea is that if you trigger an avalanche, you want to do it with your speed built up while heading for an island of safety, so that, in theory, if the slope does fracture, your momentum will carry you off the moving slab. If the first person just dives into an avalanche starting zone and an avalanche breaks, that person’s options are very limited. Therefore, the first person across the slope should always practice slope cuts.
Get Off the Slab
• Skiers’ and snowboarders’ technique: Beginning at the top of a slope, cross the slope rapidly at about a 45-degree angle, aiming at an island of safety, such as trees, rocks, or high ground at the edge of the avalanche path.
• Snowmobilers’ technique: Unlike skiers and boarders, snowmobilers have the ability to do slope cuts from the bottom. Instead of doing your first hill climb up the middle of the slope, either climb off to the side or do a swooping, traversing climb low on the slope where you can get off the slope in a hurry if it does break. If you fracture the slope while going uphill and can’t get off to the side, just grab some throttle and keep heading up in hopes that most of the snow will pass beneath. If you fracture the slope on the way down and can’t get off to the side, your only choice is to try outrunning the avalanche, which might work for small avalanches but probably not for the big ones.
Slope Cut Caveats
• Although slope cuts work fairly well for soft, shallow slabs, slope cuts are much less effective for hard or deep slabs. Nevertheless, you should still practice slope cuts on hard slabs as a good defensive technique, but realize that the third or tenth person across the slope is nearly as likely to trigger the slab as the first one, plus these avalanches can easily break above you.
• Don’t get cocky just because you’ve successfully cut a few avalanches and escaped. Slope cuts are best used as a defensive technique (to minimize the chances of getting caught), not as an offensive one (to trigger avalanches on purpose). Slope cuts are not a guarantee; they are only one more tool in your bag of tricks to push the safety arrow a little closer to 100 percent.
• Speed is your friend. Slope cuts depend on momentum to take you off the slab. Snowmobilers should avoid getting bogged down at the top of a hill climb. Don’t poke along like a cow make like an antelope.
People who ski, snowboard, snowmobile, or climb in extreme terrain continually have to deal with sluffs and small slabs. Since the terrain is so steep, even small amounts of sluffing snow can knock you off your feet and send you for a nasty ride.
Sluffs come in many sizes ranging from small, inconsequential ones that won’t knock you off your feet to large, fast sluffs composed of dense snow like near-surface facets or surface hoar, which can go very fast and can easily tumble you down the slope and bury you under 3 meters (10 feet) of debris.
Sluffs tend to go slowly at first, but once they reach critical mass, they jump into warp speed and rocket down the mountain, which can take an inexperienced person by surprise.
• You should go either slower or faster than the sluff. To go slower, make a turn or two and wait for it to run out ahead. With the new wide skis and snowboards, many more-elite athletes can go faster than the sluff, but the most important part is to look over your shoulder regularly to keep an eye out for when sluffs are catching up from behind.
• Move across the fall line instead of straight down. Never turn back into a sluff. Use small subridges (spines and flutes) to your advantage. Stay on or near the crests. When dropping into the gullies, stay up on the sides; never cross the bottom of the gully where the sluffs you have kicked off will be traveling. When one drainage fills up with sluffing snow, switch into a fresh drainage to the left or right until it fills up with too much snow, then switch again to a fresh slope.
• Managing sluffs takes experience and skill. Start practicing in terrain with fewer bad consequences before you jump in big time, which can kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing.