Avalanche safety – Be prepared or die

Avalanches in Colorado claim an average of six lives per year.  Be prepared!
Avalanches in Colorado claim an average of six lives per year. Be prepared!

As snow starts to fall, many Coloradoans and out of state visitors will take advantage of it and head to the mountains for a variety of outdoor activities.  Whether skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking, anyone who spends time outdoors in the high country needs to be aware of the danger avalanches present.  On average six people die in Colorado every year from avalanches and being prepared is an essential survival skill. 

In this fifth in a series on Winter Weather Preparedness from the National Weather Service, ThorntonWeather.com helps you understand avalanches, where they occur, how to protect yourself and where to go for more information.

Part 1 Winter travel safety
Part 2 Watches…warnings…and advisories
Part 3 High winds
Part 4 Wind chill temperatures and hypothermia
Part 5  Avalanche safety
Review  Winter Weather Preparedness Week review

600 AM MDT FRI OCT 24 2008

Avalanches – Are you prepared?

Thousands of avalanches occur each winter in the mountains of Colorado.  With the enormous popularity of winter sports in Colorado, this poses a risk to skiers, snowboarders, hikers and snowmobilers.  On average 6 people die in avalanches in the state of Colorado every year.  Anyone who travels into the high country in the winter should be prepared for avalanches and know how to avoid them. 

The first thing to know is most avalanches occur during or just after snowstorms and most occur on a slope of 30 to 45 degrees. A significant snowfall may result in an unstable snowpack.  By waiting 36 hours after a big snowstorm you may allow the snow to become more stable.  If you stay in valleys away from avalanche chutes, in stands of dense trees, or on gentle slopes you can minimize your avalanche risk.   

If you are a skier or snowboarder at a commercial ski area there is little danger of avalanches.  However respect their rules and do not stray out of bounds.  Ski areas work to reduce the danger from avalanches within their bounded terrain, but out of bounds a serious avalanche risk may exist.  Minimize your risk by staying in bounds. 

If you want to enjoy the great outdoors in areas prone to avalanches, you can minimize the danger by following a few simple rules:

  • Never travel alone.  Always have one or more companions.  Even small avalanches can be fatal.  If you are alone and get trapped, you may not be found until spring.
  • If crossing a slope that may be prone to avalanches, do it one person at a time.  You want to minimize the impact on your party if an avalanche is accidently released. 
  • In avalanche country, all members of your party should carry avalanche rescue equipment including an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe pole.  This increases your chances of effecting a successful rescue and finding your friends alive. 

Avalanche conditions in Colorado are monitored and forecasted by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). You can get more information on avalanches and avalanche safety from CAIC.  Their number is 303-499-9650 or go to their internet site at http://avalanche.state.co.us 

Winter weather preparedness week continues through Saturday.  Now is the time to get prepared for winter so you can safely enjoy the outdoors and travel safely when the snow flies.  

Glancy Greene
Warning Coordination Meteorologist
NWS Boulder Colorado
Director of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

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