Avalanche Safety 101

by Tim Rowland | February 2023

Social media images show you the good stuff. That arcing spray of white powder against a bluebird sky, fronting a glimmer of color, offering assurance that there’s a skier back there somewhere, kicking up this brilliant curtain of virgin snow while plummeting down an Adirondack slide.

What’s it like?

“Euphoria,” said Will Roth.

“Pure exhilaration,” said Caitlin Kelly.

“I get a tingling feeling just hearing the question,” said Charlie Wise.

What social media doesn’t show are the hours of arduous, uphill terrain skiers must tackle in order to experience a thrill that lasts only a handful of seconds. And there’s another catch. At any given moment the snow may literally shift beneath a skier’s boots. To someone gingerly balanced on a mountainside with precious little in the way of emergency exits, cracks appearing in the snowpack or the whumph of settling snow “are like an injection of adrenaline straight to the heart,” said Roth.

Roth, an Adirondack skiing and climbing guide, explained that backcountry skiing and winter slide climbing have been soaring in popularity for a variety of reasons. Gear is lighter, better and less expensive. Terrain has become more accessible. Training classes are more readily available.

But one thing that hasn’t changed, at least not as much, is the risk. On a Saturday in February 2022, two skiers ascending the Angel Slides area of Wright Peak were engulfed in a wave of snow cascading down from above. Tragedy was narrowly averted when one skier was able to free himself and locate and revive his companion—unresponsive and buried upside down beneath the snow—using beacons that, along with probes and shovels, are essential equipment among backcountry skiers.

A month later, a climber died in Mount Colden’s notorious Trap Dike in what was initially believed to be an avalanche, but is now suspected to have been a fall under excessively icy conditions. Either way, the back-to-back events rattled the alpine-adventure community, and validated the focus on safety as more people take up the sport.

What had been steady growth in winter alpine adventures over the past 20 years accelerated during the pandemic when ski resorts were forced to close. Skiers turned to the backcountry, where they found they liked the solitude and sense of adventure, and didn’t miss expensive lift tickets or lengthy lines.

Seasoned skiers and climbers are generally happy about this circumstance, willing to share the joy of a sport they love. But they are also cautious, fearing that more people could lead to more skier-triggered avalanches, particularly if those skiers are not well-trained and carrying essential rescue gear.

In response, outfitters, ski associations and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are raising awareness, working to improve communication and provide new tools designed to keep participants in this edgy sport as safe as possible.

“There is very little margin for error; wind can take a beautiful, crystalline snowflake and turn it into a ball bearing,” said Wise, owner of The Mountaineer, a gear retailer in Keene Valley that also sponsors comprehensive training and rescue courses developed by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

Unlike backcountry ski havens like the Rockies and Whites, there are no regular state-level avalanche forecasts in the Adirondacks, leaving skiers to assess the risks on their own.

Conditions are shared on social media sites, but Roth said the quality of these reports is uneven, and can lead to a false sense of security.

Hoping to improve the flow of information, Caitlin Kelly and Nate Trachte founded the Adirondack Community Avalanche Project last year, which includes the crowdsourcing website adkavy.org to relay backcountry conditions.

Trachte, an alpine ski racer who began skiing Whiteface Mountain as a toddler, said Adirondack avalanches happen more frequently than is reported in the popular press. “We don’t have as much avalanche terrain, and not as many people are regularly entering avalanche terrain as you might have in Colorado, but avalanches of varying size and consequence happen quite regularly in our mountains,” he said. “Within the first month of launching the Adirondack Community Avalanche Project last winter, we received three confirmed reports of skier-triggered avalanches with the destructive potential to bury, injure or kill a person.”

“There is a huge amount of joy and satisfaction when you make a real cool powder turn, but if there are any red flags, I turn around,” said Kevin Burns, a DEC ranger who became caretaker at the Lake Colden outpost in 1989 and has participated in extensive avalanche training.

Those red flags can include wind direction, evidence of avalanches on other slides, the aspect of a slope or even an unspoken sense of apprehension among members of the group. Skiing the backcountry, Burns said, is a process, not something to be done on a whim. “You need to do your trip planning days in advance, or you’re going to be behind the eight ball,” he said.

Planning includes having a secondary adventure in mind should the main objective look sketchy.

It’s important to know not just current weather, but past weather as well. Wind, rain, freezing rain, wet snow, dry snow, melting snow—all these, even if they happened weeks in the past, can mean the difference between an anchored snowpack and one that is prone to sliding off its base like cookies off a Teflon sheet pan.

Ron Konowitz has seen the destructive power first-hand, being a member of the party that experienced a deadly avalanche in 2000. Konowitz began skiing the Adirondack backcountry 50 years ago, and was the first to ski all 46 of the High Peaks. He also maintains the historical record of backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks, which first became a thing in the 1920s. But due to the remote nature of Adirondack slides and cumbersome gear, the sport was only for the hardy few back then.

That seemed likely to change after World War II, when military mountain divisions prompted great advancements in skis, bindings and boots. But the post-war era introduced another innovation: the chair lift. Downhill skiing became the purview not of the mountainous backcountry, but of glamorous resorts with drive-up access and toasty lodges.

There things might have stood in the Adirondacks, had nature itself not delivered a counterpunch. Two terrain-altering hurricanes saturated the High Peaks with unprecedented amounts of rain, causing great swaths of thin-soiled forest to lose purchase and peel away from the bedrock, leaving gleaming, skiable streaks of anorthosite running vertically down mountain flanks.

Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 created 18 new slides, Konowitz said, and a dozen years later Tropical Storm Irene created 36 more. “Many were a mile or more in length and crossed or came very close to existing hiking trails, making access much easier,” Konowitz said.

Konowitz was on one of these slides on Wright Peak in 2000 when the snow gave way, and he was “violently dragged at high speeds in the snow for more than 1,000 feet, bouncing off rocks, ledges and trees,” he said. “My skis, poles and pack were gone, having been ripped off my body. My ski jacket and bibs were torn and tattered. Somehow I was spared.”

A companion was not, becoming the first and to date only avalanche fatality in the Adirondacks. The accident highlighted a backcountry truth that no matter how experienced and how well-prepared skiers might be, one totally random event can change everything. Conditions can be studied, but never entirely known.

Snow, said Josh Worth, a member of the National Ski Patrol who investigated the more recent Wright Peak avalanche, is a curious substance. Depending on conditions, it can act like a solid, a liquid or a gas, adding to its unpredictability. The snowpack is also spatially variable, he said, meaning that while much of a slope may be safe, key parts of it may not.

Skiers analyze the snowpack by digging pits and studying the strata, almost like the rings of a tree. But even this due diligence may not detect a small area of instability somewhere on the slope, acting as a fuse just waiting to be lit by the weight of an approaching skier. “Humans make great triggers for these things,” Worth said.

And there are more of these triggers plying the peaks with each passing season. “For a long time only a very fringe group would even entertain the notion,” Wise said. But better gear—wider skis, stronger skins for climbing, technically advanced bindings and alpine touring boots with heels that can be free (for cross country) or locked (for downhill) are opening new possibilities.

Just as important for success is the human element. Experienced backcountry skiers recommend that newcomers to the sport learn the vagaries of the mountains with the help of veteran experts or professional guides.

That’s the best way to learn both the dangers and the joys. “While slide skiing, someone can experience wind-slabbed snow, wind-blown boilerplate ice and exposed rock,” Konowitz said. “They can also experience the life-altering bliss of a top-to-bottom, ridiculously wonderful powder run.”

See the Adirondack Community Avalanche Project at adkavy.org for weather and terrain reports or to submit your observations of Adirondack conditions. For information about High Peaks avalanche safety courses and essential gear, contact The Mountaineer (mountaineer.com), in Keene Valley, at (518) 576-2281.

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