Avalanche Start Zone – You Might Be in Harm's Way and Not Even Know It
Patrick Garbutt | On 14, Feb 2018
Just this last weekend I observed a scary, but sadly fairly common occurrence. A group of sledders were stopped alongside the groomed trail on the way into a local riding area. The group was stopped to help a member, who had gone off the trail, to get unstuck. Now that’s no big deal in and of itself. But, this group of five riders was lingering (helmets and avalanche airbags off) directly in the runout of several large, overlapping avalanche paths—from both sides of the valley—in an area we call “Twin Slides”. It’s very obviously an area of regular avalanche activity. But I didn’t get the impression that these folks were aware of the danger above them in the avalanche start zone.
Images and video footage courtesy of Chris Barker
Now, under most circumstances I would briefly stop to inform—in the most inoffensive manner possible—the group of the hazard above them and politely suggest that they keep moving. However in this case, I could see that the group was gathering their things to move on already and were nearly underway. And, I didn’t feel like overly exposing myself (and my friend) to the hazard as well.
You see, at the time the avalanche hazard rating for the area was “High” in the alpine. I could see ahead that there had already been a large natural slide that had touched the road some 100m up the trail. I’ve been keeping an eye on conditions and was aware of the complex and unstable nature of the current snowpack. And hanging out below big-ass slopes gives me the heebie-jeebies even at the best of times. That said, my friend and I waited from a safe spot on the far side of the slide paths to see the group safely through without incident a short minute later.
Avalanche Start Zone – You Might Be in Harm’s Way and Not Even Know It
Once everyone was clear of danger, my friend Chris popped up his drone so we could get a better look at the natural slide that had come down and hit the groomed trail. Here’s the footage from that. Hopefully this will help illustrate the fact that large avalanches can cover a lot of distance. They can cause damage even at the end of their runout, far from the avalanche start zone where they are triggered.
Be Aware of What’s Around You
Please remember to always be aware of what’s around you in the backcountry. Look up—waaaay up—to see if you are exposed to the runout of an avalanche path that might start far above you. If so, don’t endanger yourself and your group by lingering/playing/getting stuck there. Spread out and cross the area one-at-a-time, as efficiently as possible.
If by chance a member of your group becomes stuck in an area that is exposed to avalanche danger from above, you’ll have to deal with it. Just leave your avalanche airbag on and be quick about it. But don’t expose more people than necessary. The rest of the group should watch from a safe spot and be ready to respond if anything happens.
I feel it needs to be said that I’m not trying to chastise anyone here. Just trying to spread the good word and present a different visual perspective than we’re used to seeing. It’s pretty impressive to see the full extent of a large avalanche (but far from the biggest!).
It can be shocking how far a slide can run from its avalanche start zone. We need to always be aware of what is above us. Especially when a slope above might be obscured by inclement weather, clouds or terrain. So don’t forget to look up!