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More Mountain Snow Adds To Avalanche Concerns – How Are They Handled?

5 Mar 2014, 11:31 am

If you’ve been watching WeatherNation at all recently, you’re likely aware that your trusty meteorologist, Aaron Shaffer (me), is a very avid skier.  I just got back from skiing at Jackson Hole, and had some first-person interviews related to avalanche control.

There were three take-aways from these discussions:


1. Ski areas take avalanche control VERY seriously.

2. Skiing out of bounds, you are much more likely to experience avalanches.

3. The third take-away is that I am amazed at the skill and strategy that goes into avalanche control to make it so ordinary skiers don’t have to have avalanches as a major concern.


Back to questions about how avalanche control takes place… you can see me “hiking the headwall” at Jackson Hole from Monday. It’s an amazing experience, and one that really makes you appreciate what the ski patrol does to make sure you’re safe.

There are many good descriptions of what the headwall is, but this blog says it well: “It’s famed because up until the late 1990’s/early 2000’s it was closed and considered out of bounds. Now however they do avalanche control there and have opened it up to those who are willing to strap their skis to their back and boot pack straight up in search of the ever sought out untouched powder.”


See that guy in the middle of that picture?  That was me.  Huffing and puffing my way up the headwall trail.  It was quite an experience, and definitely not one for the faint of heart.  You see walls of thick snow all around you while you hike, and especially as you ski, that make you *really* hope avalanche control has been done well (and it is, so don’t worry!).

There are several different types of avalanches, but the type I was most concerned was this one, the slab avalanche:

So how do they prevent avalanches from taking place?  And how can you stay safe?

It’s really quite amazing what ski patrol folks do to make sure you’re safe.

Here is one example:

The howitzer has been used as a means of launching artillery shells in wars, but it also is a means of inducing avalanches to ensure skiers don’t do it.

These are some of the means, as mentioned in this blog post about Jackson Hole’s war on avalanches: “A 105-mm Howitzer on loan from the U.S. Army, two new Gasex exploder tubes installed on the Headwall , two Avalauncher projectile systems, and lots of good old miner’s-cast primer hand charges…”

So that is what the ski area does for you.  How can you help yourself?

1. If you’re skiing inbounds, you should be aware of what is above you, but it doesn’t have to be at the forefront of your thoughts… If you’re skiing a steep incline, say 30-40% grade or so, it might be time to be more cautious – but more than likely ski patrol has at least checked out the area.

2.  If you find yourself often in those situations listed above, and maybe occasionally (or regularly) ski out of bounds and into back-country areas, it’s time to upgrade your safety equipment and knowledge.

A partner skier is important, as is knowledge of avalanches and avalanche safety.  A common piece of equipment for back-country skiers has become the inflating backpack.  A beacon to help rescuers find you is imperative, and a shovel is important to have as well.  I won’t pretend to be a back-country ski expert, so please check out the link below if you’re interested.

You can find a very detailed list by clicking here, provided by National Ski Patrol.

The final verdict:  If you’re inbounds, ski with confidence.  It is extremely rare to see inbounds avalanches take place.  Stay aware, as you always should while skiing, and be sure to stay safe if you exit the ski area’s boundaries.

WeatherNation Meteorologist Aaron Shaffer @ashafferWNTV


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