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This is a place where Flathead Avalanche Forecasters and other avalanche professionals will contribute thoughts and musings on the current avalanche situation or avalanche stuff in general. Send us a note and tell us what you think at fac.admin@flatheadavalanche.org.

Post #4 - 3/2/2017
Mid-Season Tune Up

by Zach Miller (Zachtern), Flathead Avalanche Center intern 
Editor's note: Zachtern has yet to bring us an actual cup of coffee, but he did bring doughnuts to a meeting once. Zach is extrememly motivated and skilled and we are grateful for his time. Thanks, Zach!

Winter has turned back on in the Flathead Valley over the past week. The last storm system laid down over to 30 inches of fresh snow on top of a rain crust that formed February 10, and the skiing/riding has been phenomenal!

Having had the chance to rebuff your deep powder skills over the past few days rounds out a great season’s worth of backcountry skills maintenance and improvement, right?  All winter long we’ve been out playing in the snow, skiing, boarding, , riding, digging pits, analyzing weather, improving group communication, working on terrain recognition, submitting observations, and all sorts of other skills.  As the season progressed, each of these skills has seen its fair share of focused energy and each of these facets of backcountry travel has further developed. But what about your companion rescue skills?

When was the last time you ran through a beacon practice? How recently have you whipped out your probe and assembled your shovel? Quickly? With gloves on? Have you practiced strategic shovelling with your backcountry partners in case of an emergency? How’s your medical kit looking? Perhaps it’s emptied of ibuprofen from long days in boots or from a tweaked back from too much sidehilling. If you’re left questioning any of these skills, now is a good time to dig back in and refresh for your own sake, and that of your partners.

Let’s break companion rescue down into a few simple steps and discuss each with ideas for training.

1.Scene Safety
2.Beacon Search
3.Probing
4.Shoveling
5.First Aid & Evacuation

Scene Safety:

Immediately after an avalanche, the first thing remaining group members need to do is decide whether or not the avalanche path and deposition zones are safe to enter. Be aware of hang-fire (the snow adjacent to an existing fracture line that remains after an avalanche release), adjacent and connected avalanche paths, runout-zones of other avalanche paths, and other potential hazards to the rescuers. One burial can only be worsened when the rescuers themselves are harmed or incapacitated. You’ve already been training for this all season long, working on safe travel habits by recognizing potential avalanche terrain.

Beacon Search:

Your beacon is essential to locating your buried friend. The beacon search should be fast and thorough. It is broken into three parts: the signal search, the coarse search, and the fine search ( BCA Beacon Searching 101 video). Remember to look up from your beacon throughout your searches to look for obvious clues (pieces of gear, clothing or a hand) on the surface of the snow. If spotted, pick up these clues to see if the buried person is attached then replace the equipment back on the snow to help clarify a possible line of travel. Know your beacon well. Train with it so that it becomes second nature and you have the ability to overcome its unique searching idiosyncrasies in case of an emergency. A great way to practice your beacon search is to skin, snowmachine or ride a lift to the free beacon park at the top of Whitefish Mountain Resort. Here you can select from up to eight different buried beacons to practice your skills. Another great training option is the backyard beer/Tupperware method because we’ve got SO much snow in the valley right now!


Figure 1: Beacon searching technique courtesy of Backcountry Access. http://backcountryaccess.com/portfolio/beacon-searching-101-handout/

Probing:

After locating the lowest beacon signal, it’s time to pull out your probe. The probe is essential in accurately pinpointing a buried victim. Make sure you pull the cord all the way out and lock it in place to ensure you’ve got a functional tool.  Probe first at the lowest noted beacon signal then outward from there in 10” spacing in concentric circles or a spiral pattern. Make sure your probing is perpendicular to the slope (BCA Probing 101 video). You need to be able to assemble your probe quickly with gloves on, so a great way to practice is by quick-drawing with your friends (Clint Eastwood western style) at the trailhead or in your backyard starting with your pack fully zipped up and strapped on as if you were headed out for the day.


Figure 2: Probing technique courtesy of Backcountry Access. http://backcountryaccess.com/portfolio/avalanche-probing-101-handout/

Shoveling:

Now that you’ve pinpointed your buried friend, the hardest part begins - shoveling.  First, note the depth on your probe then step downslope 1.5x the burial depth to begin digging into the location of your buried victim. Moving snow efficiently is the name of the game, so employ the “V-conveyor” method and rotate the lead shoveler regularly as they get tired (BCA’s Shoveling 101 video). Shoveling is the most physically challenging and time consuming part of a rescue, so learn to work together with your backcountry partners by practicing together in a non-emergency situation.  A great time to practice is when you are digging a snow pit to assess snow stability (imagine someone is buried).


Figure 3: Images from Genswein and Eide (2008)) (http://arc.lib.montana.edu/snow-science/objects/P__8248.pdf).

First Aid & Evacuation:

Now that you’ve unburied your friend, your party should be prepared to offer medical assistance and CPR. Have you checked your medical kit recently to make sure it is stocked up? Does anyone in your touring party have medical training? Once you’ve stabilized the buried victim, you have to get them out. Do you have a plan for extraction? Does someone outside of your group know where you are and expect a call or text message at a certain time? Is anyone carrying a device to call for help? Did you replace the batteries in your headlamp? Each of these medical and evacuation questions are much larger topics that are meant to encourage a bit of forethought in your backcountry planning process.

Companion rescue is a big deal. Making sure your skills are up-to-snuff is a vital element of safe backcountry travel. Similarly, hold your partners and friends accountable to their own rescue skills and training because they might be saving you.

If you feel like a refresher is in order, train at home with your friends having races for each element of a rescue scenario. Or come join us at the Bonsai Beacon Rally this weekend, where you can win awesome raffle prizes and drink beer while improving your rescue skills!

I’ll end this post with a quote by the ancient Greek poet, Archilocus, often mentioned in regards to rescue by Lloyd Morsett, Snow Safety Coordinator of WMR Ski Patrol -

“We do not rise to the level of our expectations.  We fall to the level of our training.”


Post #3 - 2/2/2017
Improving Preparedness and Reducing Uncertainty

by Ted Steiner, Avalanche Safety Consultant, David Hamre & Associates, LLC.

In this post, I will be covering my perspective on [Related image] preparedness (not necessarily what to carry with you) in the context of how to improve the chances of a successful backcountry endeavor into avalanche prone terrain while minimizing the opportunity for an accident to occur, and uncertainty as it relates to avalanche risk and ways we can reduce uncertainty and our chances of unintentionally triggering and/or being caught in an avalanche.

If this is new information to you, I plead with you to read this blog post, hopefully learn from it, and be inspired to pursue formal avalanche education. I also ask that you hold off on any planned visits to avalanche prone backcountry until you have completed at least a formal Level 1 avalanche course that follows American Avalanche Association guidelines.

If this is a review, thanks for taking the time to read this and refresh, but I challenge you to refresh or advance your avalanche safety skills by taking another avalanche course or at least make sure you are currently practicing thorough preparedness while assessing avalanche, snowpack, and weather conditions objectively.

For those of you that frequent backcountry avalanche prone terrain, but feel what I am writing here is not relevant to you, I can only repeat what someone once told me; “…that snow is very forgiving until it isn’t.” Please educate yourself with a formal avalanche course, improve your objective-based assessment skills, and reduce your uncertainty as it relates to avalanche risk.

Empowering Self and Group Preparedness:

  • If you have decided to pursue a particular endeavor into avalanche prone backcountry it is imperative you let someone (who will not be joining or going with you) know where you are going, who you are going with, and what the intended route of travel is. This is best communicated in writing or by text.
  • It is also critical that your group has the experience and training necessary to accomplish whatever winter backcountry endeavor you are planning into avalanche prone terrain. 
  • Further, it is essential that all group members are trained in backcountry avalanche safety and familiar with heuristic traps and human factors that can come into play in the backcountry.
  • In regards to more complex endeavors, it helps immensely that you are familiar with each member’s skillset and that all members are on the same level in regards to avalanche risk tolerance and risk management skills.
  • Utilizing risk communication also provides a huge advantage when discussing group decision-making options particularly in complex terrain and in situations where concise risk reduction techniques need to be employed.
  • Before heading out, utilize a “checklist” to ensure each group member is carrying necessary gear for a particular endeavor and that all members are carrying proper avalanche safety gear and trained in companion rescue.

Also, remember Flathead Avalanche Center is not the ONLY awesome avalanche center out there. If you’re headed somewhere else to explore avalanche prone terrain other than in the FAC advisory area, always check the regional avalanche and mountain weather forecast for the area you are planning to visit.

  • If you need a listing of avalanche centers located around the United States along with current avalanche and mountain forecasts, get online and go to: www.avalanche.org
  • If you are headed to Canada, the Canadian Avalanche Centre has you covered in regards to fantastic avalanche safety training, information products, and avalanche bulletins.  Visit Avalanche Canada.
  • Europe also has numerous avalanche information centers in different countries and information regarding avalanche conditions is readily available online.

Reducing Uncertainty in the Field:

If you and all group members have read the local avalanche forecast and have decided to pursue a particular endeavor into avalanche prone backcountry terrain, it is a logistical advantage to appoint a leader of the group before getting started.  That way, if a critical decision needs to be made in regards to group safety or rescue, the leader can be immediately referenced to make that decision.

Once in the field, it is the responsibility of all group members to intently focus attention on potential “Red Flags” related to objective indicators of snowpack instability (Obvious Clues). 

It is also key that if obvious signs of instability are observed that these observations are shared verbally with all members of the group and that the option of turning back or re-routing to non-avalanche prone terrain is always available. 

Obvious clues of instability are related to:

  • Recent avalanche activity
  • Audible failures (Whoomping)
  • Shooting cracks
  • Snowpack collapsing
  • Snowfall intensity
  • New snowfall density
  • Windloading
  • Loading aspect

Snowpack Examination: 

  • If no obvious clues related to instability are present, it is critical to examine (dig into) the existing snowpack to examine to evaluate structure and investigate instability. 
  • This examination needs to take place for at least the upper meter of snow, in a safe, yet representative location for the avalanche prone terrain you are planning to expose yourselves to (same aspect, similar slope angle, and similar starting zone elevation).                                                    
  •  Take time to look at the snowpack to objectively evaluate structure and stability.

This examination, which will take place in the form of a “test pit” will allow you to:

  • Examine snowpack structure
  • Conduct repetitive snow stability tests (at least two)
  • Discuss layering and stability test results with your partners

 

Weather:  

Always keep a close eye on the weather and, as stated earlier, although inclement weather may drive you to scratch a particular endeavor, at least you have made that call and have not tangled with an unexpected avalanche.  However, if you’ve committed to a particular objective, constantly be evaluating, and discussing with your partners, how the weather variables may be affecting the existing snowpack structure and instability.

 

Key weather variables to evaluate;

  • Precipitation Type (Snow and/or Rain)
  • Precipitation (Intensity and Amount)
  • Wind (Strength and duration)
  • Wind (Previous and Current Loading Aspect)
  • Air Temperature (Chronic and acute effects)

What I have just shared here is a broad overview of preparedness tips and objective-based field observations that have assisted me, and many others, in being proactively prepared while reducing uncertainty when planning for and navigating backcountry avalanche prone terrain.   

If you are actively pursuing backcountry endeavors in avalanche prone terrain or are planning on getting into backcountry endeavors in avalanche country, I want to emphasize that you obtain formal avalanche education to Level 2 or higher, have solid partners as described in this blog, employ standardized snowpack assessment skills regularly, and utilize risk management/ communication practices.  If you do this, you will greatly increase your preparedness for safe outings in avalanche prone terrain while substantially decreasing your degree of uncertainty related to avalanche risk.

Be safe and thanks for reading my post, Ted.

 


Post #2 - 1/6/2017
Information Overload in the Avalanche World 
by Lloyd Morsett, Snow Safety Coordinator at Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol and Secretary of the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center

Ringing in the New Year in NW Montana brings many things to many people, including new beginnings in our physical and emotional lives.  Oh, and wind slab. Lots of wind slab.  As I bask in the the warmth of my laptop battery at 4:17 a.m. (it’s – 21 degrees F at my house), I scroll through my hit list of favorite weather sites and forecast models, and try to figure out how these changes might drive avalanche hazard in the coming days.  Looking at the number of sites I visit and the volume of band width I absorb, I remark to my trusty avalanche rescue dog, Jett, “that’s a lot of information.”  He pretends not to care.

I recently traveled to the International Snow Science Workshop in Breckenridge, Colorado, along with over 1000 of our brothers and sisters-in-arms from around the globe.  At this week long conference, the greatest minds in the avalanche world converge to present recent research, findings, and practical applications to help our understanding and make that world a safer place.  An amazing experience, but a LOT of information.  One presentation that really grabbed my attention was from a risk manager for CMH Heli-ski named Todd Guyn (https://www.adventure-journal.com/2016/10/10-common-missteps-of-avalanch...).  He recapped the contributing factors leading to “close calls” and accidents in their operation and boiled it down to 10 Common Missteps of Avalanche Pros.  I found it somewhat funny, given the conference environment, one of those missteps was information overload.

We all feel the effects of information overload from time to time.  The information train driven through Twitter, to-do lists, email, meetings, Facebook, PTA meetings, Snap Chat, Pinterest, instant messaging and more email can be enough to make the whirlwind of daily life paralyzing.  The avalanche world is no different.  Avalanche hazard forecasting requires a significant commitment to observing, assimilating, integrating data from many sources and projecting how that will play out in the future.  So, how can we mere mortals navigate the slippery slope of information without becoming buried in it?  I posed the question to Jett, but he had little to add.  So I typed “information overload strategies” into my favorite search engine and I was like a deer in the headlights.  There is so much information on this subject (some of it contradictory to the other) that I quickly closed my laptop to avoid that terrain and opted for more caffeine. 

So how do we cope with information overload?  Common themes do resurface while sifting through the strategies.

  • Identify sources of information that are important to your end goal.  For most of us and our lives in the backcountry, this means the local avalanche advisory.
  • Filter incoming information to pinpoint what is useful and what you do not need.
  • Build time in your routine to give the proper time to the information you need.

The most difficult part of this process is knowing what is important and what you can discard.  Unfortunately, this does take some practice to gain that level of confidence in your filters. Here are some ideas on how to get there:

  • Take the time to learn how to read the avalanche advisory.  Being able to quickly move through danger ratings, avalanche problems and likelihood of avalanche trigger.  This is a great video from the National Avalanche Center to help start that navigation. 

 

  • Make a plan for your season in the backcountry and check the avalanche advisory daily.  This will help you find trends in snowpack conditions and help plan your next trip when the conditions are right.
  • Don’t become so bogged down in information detail that decision making becomes impossible.  Find the information you need, build a plan and don’t try to outsmart the avalanche problem.
  • There are few absolutes in the avalanche world, but this rule always rings true.  If avalanches are the problem, terrain choice is the answer.  No matter how much snow safety jargon gets thrown at you, terrain management and good route finding can bring you home safe day in and day out.

Strong winds out of the northeast and extremely cold temperatures of the last week have given us a mixed bag in our current snowpack.  Hard wind slab can be stubborn in some locations and easily triggered in others.  Weak faceted layers lurk deeper in the snowpack, formed during the arctic cold of mid-December.  We have our collective eye on an incoming storm system for the beginning of next week that could produce significant snowfall and increased avalanche activity.  It’s a little early to forecast precise snowfall amounts, but stay tuned to http://www.flatheadavalanche.org/ and we’ll give you the information to help you make good decisions while traveling in the backcountry.  Stay safe out there!


Post #1 - 12/30/2016
The Avalanche Ghosts of New Years Past, Present, and Future 

by Erich Peitzsch, past Director of the Flathead Avalanche Center and current Physical Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey

First, allow me to apologize to all of the Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol fans out there, but I am using it as an analogy later on. More importantly, from all of us at the Flathead Avalanche Center, we wish you a Happy New Year! 2016 was a great year for the Flathead Avalanche Center in many ways. Just last year, we began issuing daily advisories for the first time in Northwest Montana, we've increased our avalanche education offerings, and we are receiving more observations from all of you. We want to thank you, the community, for your support along the way. We greatly appreciate it, and hope that we can continue to provide high quality products. But....I also want to use this opportunity to stand on the avalanche soapbox a bit. During this busy holiday season, many folks are out and about in the backcountry. More people in the backcountry sometimes translates to more encounters with avalanches, depending on conditions. So, let's keep it safe this weekend!

The Avalanche Ghost of New Year's Past 
December has been a great start to the winter. The snowpack is hovering around average as of 12/30/2016, but the snow quality has remained consistently good for the entire month. This is great for riding and skiing, but it also comes at a bit of a cost. We've "enjoyed" cooler temperatures for most of the month that allowed the snow to remain soft and light. Thus far, we haven't had to contend with the "R" word. However, the extended cold snap from December 13 to 19 caused weak snow to form at and near the snow surface. In areas with a more shallow snowpack (like southern Glacier National Park and areas closer to the Continental Divide), weak snow crystals near the ground grew larger. Then, we had a strong wind event and a slab formed over this weak snow. There were some avalanches, but, to our knowledge, most of them were confined to the new snow. The weaker snow appeared to be able to support that slab as well as the new snow that accumulated over the past week. So, while we have weak snow in the middle of the snowpack as well as near the ground in some places, we have yet to see avalanches breaking on these layers. Thus, while we have weak snow in our snowpack, we don't have a Persistent Slab problem....yet.

The Avalanche Ghost of New Year's Present
So, we have weak snow in our snowpack. So what? Well, the first thing is to check the avalanche advisory for current observations and a daily danger rating. The advisory is a great way to begin your backcountry day. It is a starting point, and merely another tool in your avalanche toolbox. The hazard rating, while some times separated by mountain ranges if conditions dictate, covers four mountain ranges. That is a huge amount of complicated avalanche terrain, and avalanche forecasters are humans, too (read: they also make mistakes...I know, mind-blowing, right?) Anwyay, we currently have a wind slab problem. Strong winds over the past 5 days coupled with new snow nearly every day create a great recipe for wind slab avalanches. These wind slabs are found in obvious places like on leeward slopes near ridges, but also occur further downslope at mid-elevations in cross-loaded areas. Wind slabs are typically a "manageable" problem in that it is relatively straight forward to identify them or at least the terrain harboring these little monsters. The recent skier-triggered avalanche in the Skook Chutes/Canyon Creek in the southern Whitefish Range is a good example. This terrain is very often cross-loaded by strong southwest winds, steep, and rocky. This makes it a perfect place to trigger a wind slab, but also, because the snowpack is often shallower here, a good spot to trigger deeper weak layers. 

Speaking of deeper weak layers, we could potentially be nearing the point where the weaker snow deeper in the snowpack may not be able to support much more above it. Sometimes, the snowpack begins to give us a heads up that we may be nearing the point of failure in the form of poor stability test results, but not always. Often, the transition from not a problem to a big problem happens rapidly, and typically during a storm. So, what do we do? First, truly read the avalanche danger rating and what it means. Too often, folks see a MODERATE danger (a yellow light...hey, let's slow down) and improperly treat it as a LOW danger (mostly green light, but avalanches can still occur). The MODERATE avalanche danger states it is still possible to trigger an avalanche. This implies up to a 66% probability of triggerinng an avalanche (Table 1). MODERATE is NOT the new LOW.


Reproduced from: Guidance Note for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties. 

Would you ski or ride a slope that has odds of avalanching similar to flipping a coin? Simply because we don't see or receive reports of avalanches during MODERATE or even CONSIDERABLE rated days doesn't translate to stability. Hopefully, it means that folks are choosing terrain appropriate for the avalanche conditions and not triggering avalanches. Avalanche forecasters often use the travel advice associated with the danger rating when applying it (Figure 1). This is a good starting point, and truly take the travel advice and use it. For instance, CONSIDERABLE states "Dangerous avalanche conditions. Carefuly snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making essential." To me, that entails, among other things, being really, really good at reading and choosing appropriate terrain, knowing the history of the snowpack, and evaluating the snowpack at every possible moment. It also means avoiding certain terrain depending on the avalanche problems. Remember, most avalanche fatalities occur during days rated as CONSIDERABLE. 


Figure 1: North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale.

Second, do your homework and truly take a look at the snowpack. You don't need to be a snow scientist to dig a hole in the snow, poke it, and see if softer layers reside under harder layers. If you are uncertain about the stability of a slope, then move to more gentle (lower angled) terrain, and take an avalanche class. So, for now, dig into the snow, keep your avalanche eyeballs open, and let us know what you see out there.

The Avalanche Ghost of New Year's Future
Well, this is the difficult one. We only make educated guesses about how future avalanche problems such as how long a wind slab problem will last, or whether or not a persistent slab problem will develop. Regardless, we will have to wait to see what the weather brings and how the snowpack reacts. In this time, continue to practice safe avalanche terrain travel habits, carry the right gear, make informed decisions, and send us your observations. Is that too tall an order for a New Year's Resolution? Many friends of mine who travel often in the mountains have three rules in this priority:
1. Come home safe
2. Have fun
3. Complete the goal of the day

So, enjoy and have a safe and fun-filled New Year!