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About avalanches

by Robyn Gordon

Why Worry About Avalanches?

Snow avalanches are a natural process, occurring perhaps 1,000,000 times per year, world-wide. They are one way for snow on an incline to adjust to the pull of gravity. The vast majority of these slides are not a problem, because an avalanche, in and of itself, is not a hazard. A person (or a person's belongings) has to get involved in order for there to be a problem.

So, who gets caught in avalanches?


What happens if you get caught in an avalanche?


The fact is, that avalanches don't drop from the peaks onto the heads of unsuspecting innocents with the unpredictability of a plummeting meteorite. 95% of people who are caught in avalanches are caught by a slide that was triggered by themself or a member of their party.

I think this is good news! Our behaviour creates the hazard, so we can change our behaviour to avoid problems.

Avalanche Characteristics

There are many different types of avalanches, but the one that worries us the most is the "slab" avalanche, in which a mass of cohesive snow releases as a unit. This type is easily recognized by its distinct crown and flanks (click for a diagram of the nomenclature associated with avalanches).

Slab and other avalanches can be hard or soft, wet or dry and can be triggered naturally or artificially.

Spotting Avalanche Hazard: The Avalanche Triangle

Some places have avalanches: Switzerland's Alps, Utah's La Sals, Nepal's Himalayas, New Zealand’s Mountains. Some places don't: South Viet Nam, the Mile-High Stadium, your living room (the distinctions are not always so obvious, unfortunately).

Why is this? Avalanches are formed by a combination of three things that together are known as the "Avalanche Triangle". These 3 ingredients may be present in one location but absent 10 feet away. The three legs of the triangle are Snowpack, Terrain and Weather.

Detecting Instability

There are many tip-offs to the presence of a potential avalanche, including surface clues and active stability tests. You should never trust a single information source--stability evaluation is an ongoing process!

The information from this page originates from

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New Zealand Avalanche resources

by Robyn Gordon

Mountain Saftey Council (MSC) New Zealand

The Mountain Safety Council is an important advocate of outdoor safety in new Zealand. They have an excellent brochure on avalanches, how to recoginise danger and how to prevent them. Their website has further resources available that you might want to explore. It also contains saftey tips for in summer time.

MSC also runs a website with backcountry avalanche advisory which is provided as a public service. It is intended as an advisory only.

Avalanche forecasting is an undertaking which requires extensive study and field observations. Those endeavouring to travel in the Southern Alps and the mountains of the North Island, do so at their own risk. We recommend winter travellers be well informed about current weather, snowpack and avalanche hazards.

Winter travellers should not travel alone. All members of your party should wear a transceiver (457khz) and know how to use it. In addition everyone should carry a shovel, and a probe. Winter travellers should advise someone where they are travelling, and when they will make next contact.

Department of Conservation (DOC)

The Department of Conservation can assist with safety advise. Check their website for more details.

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Risk Management

by Robyn Gordon

Before teachers take classes on snow trips they should have all students fill out a risk assessment forms. This is called risk management.

The forms help to identify all of the possible risks that may occur during the trip. The next step is then to work through scenarios how the grooup will respond in case one of the scenarios happens. Each of the scenario's should be worked through to make sure they have the right equipment, first aid, support systems, and procedures in place before they go.

They are then prepared for every possibility.

The Avalanche Lady covers risk management in her speech and can help school groups with providing the risk assessment forms.

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by Robyn Gordon

Avalanches are a part of the normal cycle of events in the mountains and are not a hazard in general, as they occur away from inhabited areas. It is only when people coming into these environments unprepared or unaware of the risks do avalanches become life threatening.  With 95% of avalanche accidents caused by the people who get caught up in them, it is more a case of awareness and knowledge of the mountains then about the avalanches themselves.

Not all mountains are at risk of avalanches.  Certain types of environments and conditions are required before an avalanche will form.  

But the best advice that can be given for avoiding avalanches is that KNOWLEDGE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL. 

DoC ( Department of Conservation) cannot stop you going out into the mountains, but they can advise you. Take notice of their advice as they are familiar with the conditions and the dangers.

Below are some summarised points and useful links to help you on your way.

General tips for avoiding Avalanches

  • Previous Avalanche Activity in the area
  • Stay on slopes less than 30 degrees
  • Carry and know how to use avalanche rescue gear
  • Travel down the edge of the slope rather than the center
  • Be aware of the temperature and snow wetness
  • Hoar frosts and long frosty mornings creates unstable snow layers
  • Avoid travelling under cornices when the snow turns wet
  • Mornings are safer than afternoons. When the day has heated up and the sun has changed the snow, the danger rises
  • Talk to the patrollers. They are out there all of the time and they know the snow
  • Look at the weather charts and look for the Avalanche Advisory board
  • Shady slopes versus sunny
  • No other tracks on the slope
  • Ridges and gentle slopes are safer than bowls and gullies. Roll overs stretch the snow while hollows compact the snow and creates pressure points. These are dangerous places to be.

Surface instability Clues

  • Previous Avalanche Activity in the area
  • Collapsing or a sudden drop of the height of the snow pack
  • Shooting cracks visible on the surface of snow pack
  • A hollow sound when walking on hard snow pack
  • Snow still in tree tops 24 hours after storm
  • Recently deposited snow
  • Avalanches are more likely below a cornice than on the edges of a ridge


Rescue Tips

  • Localization with an Avalanche Transceiver. A transceiver covers an area the size of a football field.
  • Know avalanche search and rescue grid patterns and search procedures
  • Visible Clues and Avalanche Rescue. Look for gloves, hats, poles a,d skis or snowboards and mark the site. The victim will be below that point.
  • Burial Depth. Each cubic metre weighs a tonne. 4 metres = 4 tonnes of snow on the body.  Its heavy stuff!
  • Tip for self rescue. PRACICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.  Know your gear so you can search with speed. Make sure your mates are better than you are. You will want them to be champions if you get caught.


Attitudes Not To Have

  • LATE FOR WORK and not taking time to do the essential checks
  • The lion , I am the leader and I know everything.
  • The horse, heading home and thinking of a shower and a warm meal, not thinking about whats happening right now.
  • Putting your life in someone elses hands. They might be dreaming of something else and not about the job in hand. Always keep looking out.

Other Resources

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Route Selection & Self-Rescue

by Robyn Gordon

The easiest way to rescue yourself is to not get into trouble in the first place.

The best philosophy I can convey about how to avoid problems is the Principle of the Three Red Flags, which states that most accidents are not the result of an unavoidable "karmic-cannonball", but rather are the predictable outcome of a series of related events. The trick to the Principle of the Three Red Flags is to recognize when these events are beginning to stack up and work against you. To do this, you must simply learn to notice the insignificant little details that are the ingredients of significant problems.

  1. Always carry rescue equipment and know how to use it--then pretend you don't have any. Don't get caught in the trap of letting the fact that you are carrying extra gear force you into more dangerous decisions. It's sort of like driving on the freeway: we'd all be a lot kinder and gentler if the driver's seat were lashed to the front bumper instead of encased in a padded steel cocoon. A transceiver is not a golden ticket to safety.
  1. Use safe route-finding and travel techniques. And remember: if a member of your party is buried by an avalanche, their only real chance of survival is if you rescue them--don't go for help unless you're sure they're dead, because they will be by the time you get back with the cavalry.

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Tips for Avoiding Avalanches

by Robyn Gordon

Slopes < 30 degrees

Remember that virtually all avalanches release on slopes of 30 degrees and steeper. You can effectively avoid avalanche terrain by staying on slopes of less than 30 degrees.

Slopes > 30 degrees.

37 degrees is recognised as a killer slope. It has the slope for speed and the quantity of gathered snow to be powerful.

If you are planning to tackle steeper terrain, here are a few safety reminders:

  1. Carry and know how to use avalanche rescue gear. You should not be skiing or climbing potential avalanche slopes without having beacons, shovels, and probes.
  2. Only one person in a group should be exposed to potential avalanche danger at a time.
  3. Climbing, skiing, and riding down the edge of slopes is safer than being in the centre.
  4. Snow stability changes from day to day and hour to hour. For example, a large spring storm, or a sustained period of hot weather can increase the avalanche danger. During a storm, or immediately after, new snow may not bond well to the icy old snow surface. Also, soon after a storm, several hours of bright sun can warm the surface snow enough to become unstable. However, after a couple of days, the new snow will strengthen and ease the danger.
  5. Watch temperatures closely and monitor the snow pack for free water. When you can begin to wring water out of a fist full of snow, it is time to move to more gentle terrain, less than 30 degrees in steepness. Beware of overnight temperatures that do not get below the freezing level, or barely get below freezing for just a short time. When this happens the danger for wet snow avalanches increases earlier the following day. Usually you have little risk when you ski early in the morning when the snow surface is crusty, or just beginning to soften. The danger begins to rise with thaw conditions late in the morning through the afternoon.
  6. Hoar frosts or a long period of frosty mornings creates an unstable layer. This layer will remain in the snowpack for weeks/ months.

Big cornices may last well into the summer. To be safe, avoid travelling under cornices when the snow turns wet or when water starts to drip from the cornices.

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Other Resources

by Robyn Gordon

Putting All The Pieces Together – Further reading

A question we often get asked is "How do you forecast?". Here are a selection of views and differing methods to help you piece together the Avalanche Triangle, which always contains you--the human--as its centrepiece.

Avalanche Forecasting - A Modern Synthesis by Ed La Chapelle, 1965.
Snow Avalanches: Their Characteristics, Forecasting and Control by Edward R. LaChapelle,1962.
Avalanche Hazard Evaluation Field Checklist by Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston.
How I Forecast for the Back Country by Rod Newcomb.
Safe Skiing - Stop Light Metaphor by Brad Meiklejohn.
Rules Of Thumb by Ron Perla.
Open Book Questions - to encourage reading the ABC's of Avalanche Safety, by Ed LaChapelle.

And view our links page for further online resources!

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Mountain safety in summer

by Robyn Gordon

Time to go bush

It’s time to escape the city confines for the space, the wind on your face and time-out with nature. It’s time to ‘go-bush’ and amble at leisure with friends at altitude or a time to test your fitness with a good climb. For some it is a chance to explore a new area with family, - whatever you choose mountain safety knowledge is important.

We all know our weather changes quickly and the temperature can fluctuate drastically, so your backpack should contain clothes and food to sustain you if you need to spend a night out in the mountains or bush. None of us ever plan to have an accident or get lost, but if you did, could you cope? Hyperthermia is a silent enemy, it sneaks up on the unwary.

Our mountains are an amazing playground but they need our respect. Knowledge and equipment before you venture forth, constant awareness of the weather and environment while you are there and when safely home again, you have memories and renewed vigour to see you through to the next outing.

Go prepared

Basic items like a warm hat, a large you-sized plastic bag (wind and rain protector), a thermal blanket and a first aid kit do not weigh very much or take up much room. Compasses, ‘E-perbs’, mountain radios and cellphones are also worthwhile extras – check the batteries before you go and make sure you know how to use it. Go prepared, its you and your friends, so make sure that you have covered your bases.

Summer snow

For those going higher and experiencing the remaining snow – make sure you read the latest reports on . The spring /summer snow is wet and loose. Statistics tell us that December and January have the greatest number of avalanches and this years loss of two experienced guides New Years Eve adds weight to the fact that you need to be aware of this danger. NZ has avalanches all year round, where-ever there is snow and the weather is changing.

We have the greatest amount of accessible mountains for our people to use and we hold the world record for deaths in avalanches. A sad but true fact. Lets try and change this record by taking more care.

Mountain Safety Council has a twice yearly magazine ‘The Crystal Ball’ and this is well worth reading online.  links and avalanche resources will find it for you. Here is the latest information from both here and overseas.

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by Kim Carruthers

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