I had no idea that avalanches occurred in the Adirondacks until the winter of 2007-2008.  That winter I was working at the High Peaks Information Center (HPIC) and living on the Adirondak Loj property.  I had quite a bit of winter hiking and backpacking experience before then, but that year I started backcountry skiing.  It was through conversations with Forest Ranger Jim Giglinto that I learned about the risk of avalanches in the Adirondack backcountry.  Since then I have gone on to take the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 1 course and have spent a considerable amount of time in the backcountry.

There appears to be a perception among some people that you don’t need to be concerned about avalanches in the Adirondacks.  While touring in the Johns Brook Valley I always ask skiers where they are going and whether they have a beacon, probe, shovel, and the knowledge to use them. Unfortunately, I find that a fair number of folks are heading towards avalanche terrain without the proper tools, knowledge, or mindset to manage the risk they are about to take.

Avalanches typically occur on slopes between 25 and 45 degrees, with slopes in the upper 30 degree range being the most dangerous.  There are four things you need for an avalanche to occur: 1) a slab of snow on a suitably angled slope, 2) a weak layer or interface, 3) a bed surface for the slab to slide on, and 4) a trigger.  All of these things are present in the Adirondack backcountry, so it’s important to know how to assess the risk of an avalanche, travel safely in avalanche terrain, and know how to self rescue.

Preparing and assessing the risk in avalanche terrain starts before you head out your door.  First, you should take an avalanche course, don’t rely on your buddies to tell you it is safe.  Before you head out you will want to check the weather forecast and past weather for the area you are visiting.  This includes recent temperatures, snowfall, and wind data.  You also want to make sure you are carrying the tools necessary to assess risk and self rescue.  This includes a field notebook, compass, inclinometer, beacon, probe, shovel, and first-aid kit.

When out in the field keep an eye out for red flag items, such as recent snow fall, signs of snowpack instability (whooping, collapsing, and shooting cracks), rapid warming, wind loading, and signs of recent avalanches.  Further, make sure that decision making is done as a group, don’t let one person drive the decision making.  Make sure your group is travelling safely while ascending and descending; this means only one person in the danger zone at a time.  Finally, be aware of the human factors that drive decision making, such as the “expert halo” or “back to the barn” syndrome.

If an avalanche occurs and you or a member of your group are buried, your only chance of rescue is your group.  Your target time for locating and digging up a patient is 15 minutes, after that survivability drops off quickly.  That means you want to be certain your buddies know how to use a beacon, probe, and shovel; quickly!  If you are relying on outside help your chances of survival are extremely low.  It’s worth running through a few avalanche rescue practice sessions with your ski partners at the beginning of the season.

Finally, avalanches don’t just happen to skiers, anyone in avalanche terrain should be aware of the risks, regardless of whether you are skiing, snowshoeing, or climbing.  So get out there and have fun, just make sure you are safe while doing so.

Useful Resources:

Adirondack Avalanches  – including a record of avalanche history in the Adirondacks
American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education
Forest Service National Avalanche Center
Canadian Avalanche Centre
Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Amphitheater photo by Seth Jones, Trap Dike Photo provided by Forest Ranger J. Giglinto