Jimmy's Ski Tips and Tricks

Be Safe, Stay Alive

Tuesday March 13, 2018

La Nina has been good to the Pacific Northwest, blessing us with 390 inches so far at Snoqualmie Pass! The next storm to pass through will take us past our totals for the last two years, making this a good season by any measure. (We don't discuss the 2014-2015 season in polite company)

But all this snow comes with a downside, and it's a major one at that. It's only mid-March, and Washington State is already tied with the 2013-2014 season for the most avalanche deaths in the state in a single year. Washington is only behind Colorado for most average deaths in a year, and we've surpassed them two out of the last four years, and may again this year. The North Cascades are dangerous mountains in the winter, and there's no denying it.


A few years ago, some friends and I tried to summit Mount Stuart over Memorial Day weekend. We didn't make it; when we reached the spot marked with the red arrow, I insisted we turn back to camp. An argument ensured, but before we could reach a conclusion, a cornice fell and triggered an avalanche that filled the entire couloir. We were lucky to play on the mountain that day without any injuries. We saw another large avalanche the next day, and when we were heading out, we ran into a group that said they barely avoided getting buried. All in all, it was a dangerous weekend as the temperature had unpredictably risen much higher than expected, triggering wet slides on normally safe north-facing slopes.

Avalanches can occur any time of year, on any slope, but that doesn't mean that there aren't times more dangerous than others. Visit https://www.nwac.us/" class="wiki wikinew text-danger tips">NWAC before you go, and know what the avalanche risks are before you set foot on the snow. Recognize that most large avalanches occur within 48 hours of new snowfall, and that's always the most risky time to be out. Also watch out when the temperature starts rising, saturating older snow with water.

Not all slopes are equal, either. Watch for signs of avalanches in the past. Beware of passing under cornices. Recognize that most deaths occur on slopes that would be rated steep blue to mid black diamond runs in a resort. Minimize time in exposed areas, and travel one at a time in them. Group up above rollovers, or in places where the terrain rises up.

Any time you travel in avalanche terrain, carry the right gear and know how to use it. A beacon, shovel, and probe are essential, although they only work if you have a partner. Airbags and Avalungs are nice extra safety features, but they can't replace the beacon, shovel, and probe! Don't just take the equipment with you, but test and practice with them regularly. There's a free beacon practice area near Alpental where you can attempt to locate a number of randomly placed buried transmitters.

But the best and final advice I can give you is to get educated. Get yourself AIARE qualified in avalanche prediction, avoidance, and rescue. It's the best investment you can make in your own life.

For more information about me, check out the About page. All content copyright 2017 James Brokaw.