Avalanche Expert on How to Survive Snow Slides

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
April 16, 2004
Ultimate Explorer's Avalanche:
Surviving Tragedy
airs Sunday, April 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC

In North America, at least 29 skiers, snowboarders, climbers, snowmobilers, and other backcountry users have died in avalanches this year, falling victim to the same snow that fueled their winter passions.

Powerful and destructive, avalanches are far from random, and understanding avalanches is a science and a skill. Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center director Janet Kellam has devoted 25 years to learning how to play safely in the backcountry—and to passing that knowledge on to others.

In a recent telephone interview with National Geographic News, Kellam discussed the risks of avalanches and shared some snow know-how.

Are you seeing more avalanche incidents?

Over the past ten years, we've seen a steady increase in winter backcountry use, both motorized and nonmotorized. We've also seen an increase in "human" avalanches and avalanche fatalities. But, while we don't have solid evidence, we feel that the user numbers have increased more than accidents and fatalities.

That is to say, the avalanche education and information available has helped, so that the accident and fatality numbers haven't exploded in the same way that the usage numbers have.

Is it hard to get people to understand the danger?

I think for anybody—[beginner] or very experienced—until you've been around [avalanches] and seen them or been caught in [one] yourself, it's very easy to underestimate these light little snowflakes.

One cubic yard [0.75 cubic meter] of very light powder snow—the size of a big trash can that you'd put out on the curb—weighs about 90 pounds [40 kilograms]. That's very light snow.

If you get into snow that's been sitting for a while—heavier powder that's still very skiable—one cubic yard weighs 400 pounds [180 kilograms]. The same amount of snow that you could walk on—not even spring snow but just snow that would support you—weighs 850 pounds [385 kilograms]. That's an 850-pound garbage can, and that would be [the density of] avalanche debris. I find that very impressive.

So even in a small slide, when you are covered by a couple of cans of snow, well, you are in concrete. And avalanches travel 70 or 80 miles per hour [110 or 130 kilometers per hour], and they accelerate to those speeds very quickly.

What do you recommend for newcomers to backcountry winter sports?

I recommend three things: One, that they take a basic avalanche awareness class. Outfitters throughout the U.S. [and abroad] offer classes. Or local avalanche centers can steer people to a class.

Two, that [newcomers] follow the avalanche advisories that are posted throughout a winter season. That's a real building block toward understanding the changes [in weather and snow conditions] that go on.

Three, that [less-experienced backcountry users] go out with people who have experience. No matter how long you're out there, you always see something new. Over time experienced people pass on that kind of knowledge to people newer to the backcountry. All of us that work in the avalanche industry say we're lifelong students of avalanches.

Have you been caught in slides yourself?

I think that most of us in the profession have either had a close call or been with a group that's had a close call. I've triggered a number [of avalanches] intentionally from safe places. Also, in the course of 25 years or so, I've been caught twice.

I was completely buried once, and that was definitely unintentional. It was a very small slide. We were using the same techniques that we teach, practicing safe travel by exposing only one person at a time. We were also well practiced with avalanche beacons.

In a way, those kinds of abilities are like having a seat belt on. They can reduce the risk. But you still don't want to be caught. A third of all avalanche victims are killed by trauma.

Do some people rely too much on gear to help them in avalanche country?

I think any piece of safety equipment can give a false sense of security. One group we saw this winter had avalanche rescue gear, so they ventured into avalanche-prone terrain when conditions suggested very considerable danger. They did it because they felt safer.

Avalanche educators are looking at what we call human factors. We find that people do have skills and good information but are still getting caught in slides. I'm a classic example. Why are we getting caught? There are a number of components in play—how we as humans respond to different situations. It's a bit like pilot error in the aviation industry.

It's very easy to know when the snow is really unstable or really stable. But it's in that gray area where problems occur. And when it's a really good powder day, and the slopes are inviting, things happen.

You must have encountered some amazing avalanche stories over 25 years.

Oh, yes. We've had people high up on big peaks go for some very long rides in the powder cloud—up on top of the debris—and not be buried. One guy took a 700-vertical-foot [200-meter] ride with a slide that left 60 acres [24 hectares] of debris that was 15 feet [4.5 meters] deep. He walked away. He was a very lucky man.

There was also a slide within the ski area [Sun Valley], and they shut down the area for a large search with the employees and dogs because they were afraid that someone had been buried.

It turned out that nobody had been buried in that slide. But another skier was skiing about of bounds and triggered a second avalanche. He was lucky and wasn't buried, though he was beaten up and lost all of his equipment.

When he eventually post-holed his way back to the ski area, he found it deserted and the lodge locked up. Days later in the bar he told a ski patroller he thought he'd been killed in the slide and ended up in hell.

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