Avalanche Safety for Ice Climbers

Photo by Nathan Smith

While planning a trip, do you know what the avy conditions are in the area you’ll be climbing? As you hike the approach and descent, do you know how to read for signs of avy danger? As you climb, do you know what lurks above? Not only do we, as ice climbers, need to know how to read the ice, we also need to know how to assess for and avoid avalanches on the approach, around the climb, and above the climb.

By following these five steps of preparation from the Know Before You Go program, you’ll have a safer climbing experience in avalanche prone areas.

Step One: Get The Gear
You should always carry a transceiver, probe, and shovel and know how to use them. A transceiver is useless if you do not know how to use it, and more importantly, use it quickly and efficiently. These three items are known as reactive gear, allowing you to act after an avalanche. To be more proactive in the backcountry, packing a slope meter, thermometer, and altimeter will help you read the real-time conditions to help you avoid problematic areas. A slope meter will help you read the angle of the slope you are on. The thermometer will let you track the current temps to keep an eye on any rapid thawing. By keeping track of your elevation with an altimeter, you’ll be able to determine if you are in or approaching any elevations that were deemed as high-risk areas in the avy report you pulled up before leaving the house.

Let’s face it, most ice climbers will not follow step one while climbing. This makes it even more important to know and understand the following steps. Avoidance will be your most important tool in staying safe.

Step Two: Get The Training
Take an avalanche class, read some books, talk with people that know this stuff. Gather the knowledge, obtain the skills, and learn the processes that will keep you safe. Learn how to make sense of the avy reports. Learn how to use the gear. Learn the terrain, signs, and conditions that normally warrant danger, e.g. slope angles, snow pack, etc. Learn which areas are generally high-risk and low-risk areas.

Step Three: Get The Forecast
Know where to get the avy report for the area you plan to climb. Learn how to make sense of the reports. Use that info to determine where you climb. Check the reports daily, even if you aren’t planning to climb that day. By keeping an eye on the daily reports, you’ll be able to identify any problematic trends for future climbs.

Nathan Smith on Sundial Falls WI3, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah
Step Four: Get The Picture
Be observant when you are driving up to the trail head, hiking the approach, on the climb, and on the descent. Keep an eye out for hazardous or changing conditions. Do the current conditions match the previous forecast? Be aware of other people around you that might trigger something or be affected if you set something off. Pay attention to the snowpack; dig a pit to see what each layer of snow looks like.

Step Five: Get Out of Harms Way
Avoid any problematic and high-risk areas, even if it means that you have to pass up all that fat ice. Tread lightly on suspect slopes; only one person at a time. Stay in contact with your partner at all times, i.e. visual or vocal contact. Don’t enter any closed areas. Know the terrain traps and do everything you can to avoid them. If the avalanche danger is high on the climb you want to do, make sure you have alternatives. Keep a list of avalanche safe routes that you can fall back on if need be.

While there is always a risk when entering avalanche terrain, with the right gear, and proper training you can do a lot to avoid the danger and keep you and your partners out of harms way. So get out, have fun, and be safe.


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