The storm on Thursday and Friday left power out for thousands of Adirondackers and left snow depths and conditions ideal for snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling, and other winter activities. But it also left a potentially deadly threat on steep open terrain – the threat of avalanche.
The majority of avalanches in the U.S. occur out west, but avalanches do occur in the northeast. Much of the steep open terrain is found in the High Peaks, but avalanche-prone terrain is found on mountains throughout the Adirondacks, including Snowy Mountain in Hamilton County. DEC warned the public Friday about the increased potential for avalanches. It’s a warning that history tells us we should take seriously.
Last year, there was at least one skier-triggered avalanche, and like most years, there was other avalanche activity in the High Peaks. Over in Vermont however, State Police, volunteer search and rescue groups and resort ski patrols received dozens of calls for assistance when more than 30 skiers and snowboarders required rescue.
A skier died and five people were injured in an avalanche while skiing on Angel Slide on Wright Peak in the High Peaks in February 2000. In 2010, two backcountry skiers were caught in an avalanche on the same slide. Ian Measeck of Glens Falls told his story to Adirondack Almanack readers here. In February 2018, a skier on Wright Peak was trapped waist-deep in snow. He escaped uninjured with the assistance of his companions.
Phil Brown has written A Short History of Adirondack Avalanches, which reviews some of the incidents at other locations in the Adirondacks going back to the 1970s.
Avalanches can occur in any situation where snow, slope, and weather conditions combine to create the proper conditions. The new snow Thursday and Friday fell on an already deep snow pack, which already had distinct layers formed by rain and melt/freeze cycles. Lower snow layers can be reactive to the added stresses of recent snows, creating conditions conducive to avalanches.
Take the following precautions when traveling in avalanche-prone terrain:
- Cross-country skiers and snowshoers should stay on trails and avoid steep slopes on summits;
- Know the terrain, weather, and snow conditions;
- Dig multiple snow pits to conduct stability tests – do not rely on other people’s data;
- Practice safe route-finding and safe travel techniques;
- Never ski, board, or climb with someone above or below you – only one person on the slope at a time;
- Ski and ride near trees – not in the center of slides or other open areas;
- Always carry a shovel, probes, and a transceiver with fresh batteries;
- Ensure all members of the group know avalanche rescue techniques;
- Never travel alone; and
- Notify someone about where you are going.
Additional information on avalanche danger, preparedness, and safety precautions is available on the DEC website.
Illustration of Avalanche anatomy courtesy T3 Adventures.