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The Gravity of the Avalanche Situation

Mt. Wright from Mt. Colden

Wright Peak by Flickr user Erik De Leon

Avalanche Lake. Avalanche Pass. The dramatic scars on Mount Colden, Whiteface, Giant, Santanoni, Snowy and Blue Mountain. The brute evidence of rock and snow slides surrounds us in the Adirondacks. Why are so many of us clueless when it comes to comprehending the cataclysmic power of gravity when it combines with precipitation?

Many of our distinctive slides were triggered by rain from Tropical Storms Irene and Floyd, but during recent decades of ice-climbing, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and winter camping there have been numerous avalanches that uprooted trees, tossed boulders like bowling balls and injured—even killed—people out for a good time on the wintry glades.

Peter Bronski’s At the Mercy of the Mountains recounts harrowing tales from wilderness expeditions gone wrong. In March 1977 three ice climbers on Keene Valley’s Chapel Pond Slab triggered a massive avalanche that took the season’s snowpack down to the black ice beneath. They all survived and recalled in the book the numerous mistakes they made.

The Adirondacks’ most tragic avalanche was on February 19, 2000. Six backcountry skiers headed for the treeless slopes on Wright Peak from Adirondak Loj, near Lake Placid, but one young man returned in a body bag from the Saturday outing. About 1:00 p.m. an avalanche swept the skiers downhill; all were injured, including one critically. Twenty-seven-year-old Toma Vracarrich was found dead by a volunteer searcher’s dog under nearly four feet of snow some five hours after the initial slide.

This winter’s early snowpack arrived in distinct waves, with more than 16 inches falling after Christmas in one storm. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s backcountry bulletin issued every Thursday, conditions for avalanches are ripe on High Peaks slopes. The January 10 notice included this advice: Snow packs may be stressed. Winds may blow snow to leeward slopes and create wind slabs. If you decide to recreate in avalanche terrain remember to pay attention to Red Flags such as high winds, more than 12 inches of snow in a 24 hour period, any amount of snow that falls at a rate of more than an inch per hour. … Just because a slope has been skied doesn’t mean that it can’t slide. Practice safe travel techniques, have a rescue plan and know how to self rescue. Carry a shovel, probe and first aid kit.”

Veteran backcountry skier and climber Drew Haas posts current information on High Peaks’ snow depth, avalanche conditions and more on his Adirondack backcountry blog. National Geographic Society provides an overview of avalanche precautions. An excellent online tutorial is available from avalanche.org.

There’s no substitute for experience-based learning from wilderness leaders, though. Beginning January 18, in Keene Valley, at The Mountaineer’s Mountainfest there are lectures and hands-on sessions on  ice climbing, backcountry snowshoeing and avalanche awareness. Chuck Boyd will lead an all-day course on avalanche safety and rescue on Saturday; if the class fills it will be offered Sunday too.

According to the Mountainfest brochure, “This course teaches you how the terrain, weather and snowpack affect the stability of the slopes you’re going to ski, ride and/or climb.  The emphasis will be on recognizing the terrain and conditions for stability and travel techniques to identify safer routes.  Other important aspects of traveling in the backcountry that will be discussed are the use of avalanche rescue equipment and companion rescue.” For people who complete this class a technique-centered  half-day of using beacons, probes and shovels is scheduled for Monday.

One way to make educated decisions about cold-weather treks is to check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecasts for higher elevations, which includes mountains in Vermont and the eastern Adirondacks.

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