If you trigger an avalanche, want to be as high as possible on the slab. Snow below you can’t bury, but the snow above can. Avalanches die from the tail, as the Swiss avalanche researcher Perry Bartelt puts it. They lose mass from the tail, or trailing edge, which causes the avalanche to slow and ultimately stop.
So the closer you are to the trailing edge, the more likely you will be left behind on the bed surface. Inexperienced people tend to cut too low on the slope and are therefore caught in the leading edge—the most dangerous part—of an avalanche. Thou Shalt Cross High on the Avalanche Path.
If you trigger an avalanche, you want to be as high on slab
Someone always has to go first, and sometimes it’s going to be you, in which case you practice your slope cuts and all the other commandments. Avoid testing the stability of a slope using your most valuable possession your life.
Your parents invested thousands of dollars in you, and they don’t appreciate you risking their investment when there seems to be an endless supply of volunteer stability testers willing to work for free, who apparently don’t care about their parents’ investment. Snowboarders, skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers, hikers they all seem eager for the job.
According to Swiss statistics 60 percent of avalanche accidents are triggered by the first person down. Although there are no reliable statistics, I suspect that in intermountain, and especially in continental, climates of North America, this number is lower because of more-persistent weak layers. Still, even in these colder, drier climates, the first person down has a much higher probability of triggering the avalanche than the ones who follow. The more tracks on a slope, the better.
I love going last. And when I go, I follow other people’s tracks, spooning in my tracks with theirs. Treat an avalanche slope like a minefield. If someone else successfully crossed a particular spot without triggering an avalanche, you probably can, too. This is one instance in which the herding instinct works to your advantage.
Thou Shalt Start Small and Work Your Way Up
Terrain almost always gives you small gifts—small test slopes—that you can jump on to see how they respond. Never pass up a test slope. It’s better to find out the stability of the snowpack on small slopes that won’t kill you before you get to the big ones that will. Only a fool jumps into a big slope without first gathering lots of data from other safer places. This is a standard technique at ski areas, helicopter-skiing operations, and extreme video shoots start on gentler, safer slopes and work slowly into more dangerous terrain to reduce uncertainty to reasonable levels.
Thou Shalt Be Obsessed with Consequences
What’s below? What’s above? What is the slope connected to? If you don’t like the consequences and you’re uncomfortable with the uncertainty in the snowpack, maybe you should find another option.
Always look for the downside of any decision, and always challenge assumptions and beliefs. I try to continually ask myself: “Why might this be wrong?”
Pay very close attention to terrain consequences—what will happen if it slides? Terrain traps, trees, cliffs, rocks, crevasses, large and long avalanche paths—they are much harder to survive due to resulting trauma and deep burials. In low-consequence terrain, your rescue gear and skills at least have a chance to save your life.
Corollary: Remember, always go back the way came. The route that got you there will almost always get you back. When all else fails, go underground. Many people have saved themselves during storms by digging a snow cave or creating a snow shelter, which can be surprisingly warm and cozy. Yes, might be uncomfortable and loved ones may worry, but at least you will be alive.