Monday, February 10, 2020

History Shows Adirondack Avalanche Risks Are Real

Avalanche anatomy illustration

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.

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5 Responses

  1. Bill Kimball says:

    Thanks for another informative article. As an aside we were unable to park at several access points to cross country skiing this weekend. The 2 lots near Goodnow flow in Newcomb we’re not plowed. The same was true for the small area off of rt 28N at the Roosevelt Truck trail. 2 weeks ago we ran into 2 women while snowing in North Hudson and they had the same complaint. We’ve invested in these areas but they can not be enjoyed if the lots have several feet of snow covering them. I wondered it the trails are damaged from recent storms but there were no signs saying so.

    • Boreas says:


      This is a common complaint at some trailheads in winter. But depending on what day(s) you were there, road clearing typically will take precedent over pull-outs and parking during and after a storm. I would let the town of Newcomb and possibly Essex Co. know your situation and see if they have an explanation. It may have been simply bad timing. If not, they need to know about it.

  2. Bill says:

    Thanks for the reply. I checked the lots Saturday and Sunday. These are the 2 lots near the Goodnow Flow that access the Essex Chain of Lakes trails. I agree that the roads must come first but the storm ended Friday night and 48 hours later the lots were still covered. I suspect they are getting ignored. I will take you advice and try the town and state.

    • Boreas says:

      I believe some towns use private sub-contractors to plow some of those places. It could be they were busy for several days. But if the towns don’t get complaints, they won’t know they are a problem. Can’t wish for tourism and not plow the lots.

  3. Mildred Martin says:

    Thanks for your news. I grew up in Hartford, NY and vacation in the area each summer. My uncle rented a cabin on Owl pond near Saranac Lake and we spent happy times there. Lots of good memories.

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