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Snowboarding and Avalanche Safety.
Avalanches – a term that sounds scary and deadly. Many people underestimate the power of avalanches, therefore being naïve about them. They are an important part of snowboarding because of the likelihood of one happening to a snowboarder. Most average snowboarders are considered fairly safe, if staying within the patrolled boundaries of a ski resort, as runs would be shut down or blasted if there were an avalanche danger. However, the danger comes when one steps over the fence, stepping out of patrolled area, otherwise known as the backcountry.
Each year, devastating “White Death” claims many lives, with the death rate rising each year as backcountry boarding becomes more popular.
The majority of boarders caught in avalanches are men between 20 and 29, three quarters of which are in the backcountry when the avalanche occurs.
An avalanche, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is "a large mass of snow, ice, earth, rock, or other material in swift motion down a mountainside or over a precipice.”
There are many different causes of avalanches and many factors that go into making that giant slab of snow break off and slide downwards.
The snow pack, or the accumulation of the season’s snow, is a major factor.
Fresh snow accumulation – Under 6” is usually nothing to worry about. 6- 12 inches of fresh powder is definitely a danger and anything over 12” is extremely dangerous. However, this all depends on how the new snow bonds to the existing snow. Different types of snow bond differently to each other. A frozen base of snow with an icy finish makes it easy for a new dumping of snow to slide off the existing snow. However, freezing and refreezing cycles of snow can also stabilize snow pack.
Wet snow, powder, sticky snow. A fresh powder base is on the mountain. Then a wet snowstorm blows through, dumping heavy snow onto an airy base of powder. These are perfect avalanche conditions.
30-45 degrees is the usual slope of a hill prone to avalanches. However, there have been known avalanches on as slightly-sloped hills as 10 degrees. Conditions are always different!
Wind can have a huge affect on avalanches. When wind blows up and over a mountain, it can cause huge deposits of snow depending on the intensity of the wind. For example, winds around 30 mph can triple the depth of snow in an area.
Heat has a major role in avalanches. When the sun heats up snow, it’s possible for the bonds in the snow to unbind and cause a slide. Therefore, knowing the direction the mountain faces and what times the sun hits what areas of a mountain are greatly beneficial. As the sun moves, conditions and change from hour to hour.
Precaution is essential when playing on nature’s alpine playgrounds. Knowing as much as possible about avalanches, exercising proper avalanche safety procedures, and educating fellow snowboarders will help to prevent tragic and fatal accidents. Unfortunately, the one way to guarantee safety from avalanches is staying away from the mountains. Even the most experienced and cautious backcountry riders have suffered the effects of avalanches.
Knowledge of the causes of avalanches will help you to understand them. A rider will know what to look for in trying to avoid avalanche prone areas.
Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it is an essential avalanche precaution.
The beacon, or transceiver, is an instrument a rider always carries in the backcountry that transmits or receives an electromagnetic signal. When riding, one must always keep it in transmit mode. If a fellow rider happens to get stuck in an avalanche, the searchers then enable their beacon to receive mode in order to get a signal from the distressed boarder. If boarders keep their beacons in receive mode, then if they happen to get stuck, their beacon will do them no good, as it is only looking for a signal and letting others look for its signal.
The probe is a tool that is used once the transceiver has found the victim to a point where he/she is buried in the snow. Probes are often about 10- 12 feet long in order for it to poke around deep enough in the snow to try and find the distressed.
Most probes assemble like tent poles. Some ski poles convert to a probe as the basket and hand grips can be removed to prevent them from getting stuck in the snow.
Shovels can out pace digging by hand by a tremendous amount! Maybe you think you can dig like a dog, but don’t take the risk. Also, some think their snowboards are just as good as a shovel. But they’re not, and it’s not worth not having one!
Once the victim is rescued, it’s essential to have the right equipment to help them in whatever way possible. Emergency blankets or bivy sacs can help one survive in extremely cold conditions. Duct tape often proves to be a helpful tool.
Not just first aid for humans, but equipment also often needs repair. A tool kit to make adjustments to boards is also essential. If boarding in avalanche-prone areas, most likely the terrain is fairly extreme in which falls could severely damage equipment.
None of the above pieces of equipment is useful unless you know how to use it! Not only must you know how to operate a transceiver, but your search party must as well.
Just having a shovel won’t help if proper techniques for removing snow as fast as possible aren’t known.
First aid kits do no good if one doesn’t know how to use the contents.
Avalanche safety education can help avoid slides in the first place.
Avalanche classes are available in many places throughout the world where avalanches are real threat and danger, mainly for recreational reasons like snowboarding, skiing, and mountaineering. Sign up for one of these classes with professionals. Knowledge alone of avalanches sometimes isn’t good enough. Experience and practice are essential for backcountry boarders.
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