With the rising popularity of backcountry recreation, more people are skinning up, sledding, and simply boot-packing beyond ski area boundaries. With increasing numbers in unstable terrain, we have also seen a rise in avalanche-related injuries and fatalities.It is the unfortunate law of numbers: the more people out there rolling the dice, the higher the chances are that somebody will not be making it back.
There’s no stand-in that can rival study and practice, but a system was developed to make it easier for people to make a quick assesment of the conditions in a straightforward, immediate manner. Called the Avalanche Danger Scale, it was developed so that anyone wanting to venture into the backcountry would know the likelihood of avalanches as easily as they could find the latest snowfall and weather conditions.
Here is the Avalanche Danger Scale:
From my experience in the backcountry, the biggest danger is when the scale is in the middle. Those are the times to be most vigilant. It is easy to avoid going into the backcountry when the danger is high or extreme. But the “considerable” rating unfortunately and ironically does not always involve people’s consideration. This is when you should be absolutely, 100% certain that the snow is stable. If you would like to see an excellent piece of journalism on a large group of experienced people who went out when the danger was “Considerable,” then read this interactive piece from the New York Times.
Check the scale each and every time you go out. But remember, just because a rating is “moderate” doesn’t mean an avalanche is impossible; only that the likelihood is lower. Keep in mind also that the ratings are subject to vary based on the difference between where the forecaster recorded their data and where you will be skiing, boarding, or sledding. Use this only as a rough guideline, and always pursue as much education as you can before heading out. It’s hard to get motivated to sit in a classroom, but hopefully the assurance that you will be able to make better decisions that can mean the difference between the best and worst run of your life.