The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is advising backcountry users in the Adirondacks, especially the High Peaks region, of potential avalanche risk following mild temperatures and high winds. Avalanche danger increases during thaws when warmer weather and rain melt existing snowpack and snow becomes increasingly unstable as it undergoes freeze/thaw cycles.
Backcountry hikers, downhill skiers, snowboarders, and other visitors who may traverse slides or steep, open terrain should be aware of and prepared for avalanche conditions. Avalanches can occur in any situation where snow, slope, and weather conditions combine to create instability in the snowpack. While the majority of steep, open terrain is found in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, avalanche-prone terrain is found on mountains throughout the Adirondack Mountains. Skiers, snowboarders, and hikers should assess their own experience level before going into the backcountry and should be equipped with avalanche safety tools and knowledge, including participation in an avalanche safety course.
Recently, DEC Forest Rangers led a search in the Adirondacks for a 63-year-old individual who planned to climb Mount Colden on the weekend of March 11, but failed to return. On March 18, Forest Rangers and volunteer rescuers located the subject deceased in the Trap Dike under approximately four feet of snow. After consulting experts at the National Avalanche Center, evidence suggests an avalanche may have occurred at the site. However, without an eyewitness and due to changing snow conditions, it is impossible to say for certain if the snow accumulation was the result of an avalanche or drifted snow.
An avalanche was confirmed on a slide located on Wright Mountain on Feb. 12, 2022. Two skiers were initially buried. One of the two skiers was able to self-rescue and locate and dig out his companion. Both skiers had proper safety gear including shovels, beacons, and transceivers. The pair had also practiced rescue techniques before the trip.
How to Minimize Risk
Individuals headed outdoors can reliably avoid avalanches by recognizing and avoiding avalanche terrain. Travel on the valley floor away from large avalanche runouts, along ridgetops above avalanche paths, in dense timber, or on slopes of 25 degrees or less that do not have steeper slopes above them. Avoid cornices, or hanging masses of hardened snow.
Risk cannot be entirely eliminated if traversing avalanche terrain, but risk can be minimized by using techniques: climb, descend, or cross avalanche areas one at a time; cross a slope at the very top or bottom if possible; climb or descend the edge of a slope rather than the center; carry and know how to use avalanche rescue gear; and turn back or alter the route if signs of unstable snow are detected.
Signs of Danger
When the snow cover is very unstable, nature often broadcasts clear danger signals. Fresh avalanches are the best clue. Snow that cracks, collapses, or makes hollow sounds is unstable. Weak layers that are found by digging snow pits are signs of unstable snow. Snow that has become wet from thaw or rain can be dangerous. Even if no signs of unstable snow are found, individuals should always travel observing the techniques listed above to minimize risk.
Outdoor adventurers should always have an avalanche transceiver (or beacon), shovel, and a collapsible or ski-pole probe during avalanche conditions and should practice frequently to be proficient in using a beacon. However, visitors should not take extra risk just because rescue equipment is available to be used and should always carry a day pack with enough equipment to spend the night.
What to do if Caught in an Avalanche
Surviving avalanches can depend on luck, but it is always better to avoid avalanches in the first place. Remember that only one of three victims buried without a beacon survives. If caught in an avalanche, first try to escape to the side, or grab a tree or rock. If knocked down, get rid of poles, skis, and a heavy pack. Swim with the avalanche to try to stay on top and avoid trees. When the avalanche slows down, reach the surface or make an airpocket.
Safe Travel Techniques
- Never put everyone on the slope. Only one person should be on the slope at a time.
- Have an escape route planned. Always think avalanche – What will you do if the slope slides? Have a plan before you travel.
- Use slope cuts. Keep your speed up and cut across the starting zone, so that if the slope slides, your momentum can carry you off the moving slab into safer terrain. You can do this on skis, snowboards or on snowmobiles.
- Watch out for cornices, which tend to break farther back than expected. Always give them a wide berth. NEVER walk out to the edge of a drop-off without first checking it out. Many people have died this way.
- If it looks too dangerous, find a safer route. Use terrain to your advantage. Follow ridges, thick trees and slopes with safer consequences. You can almost always go back the way you came. The route got you there, it will most likely get you back as well.
- If there’s no other choice, go underground. You can almost always weather out a bad storm or bad avalanche by digging a snow cave or seeking the shelter of a crevasse. You may be uncomfortable but you will be alive.
To contact a Forest Ranger, whether it’s for a search and rescue, to report a wildfire, or to report illegal activity on State lands and easements, call 833-NYS-RANGERS.
Avalanche anatomy illustration courtesy T3 Adventures