The Most Important Tool is Knowledge
Avalanche Awareness with Gary Brill
January 8, 2006

Pages »1   2

Despite the warnings, the snowboarders chose to go into the Steep Gullies, which are essentially avalanche slide paths. On their first run, they set off a slide, but were not caught. On their second run, the first boarder set off a slide and was buried. He died from blunt trauma.

In all these accidents, the victims were strong, capable skiers and snowboarders, but they ignored warnings and did not exercise good judgment in choosing to access that terrain. Had they heeded patrol warnings, checked avalanche reports or had the knowledge to assess the snowpack on the spot, they would have had enough information to make the decision not to access that terrain.

"Always be open, always be asking questions, always be inquisitive..."

In the case of the skier buried at Crystal, he and his partner were sufficiently aware of the danger to choose to ski the slope one at a time. This decision may indicate they knew there was a certain percentage of possibility the slope could slide.

"If you could forecast and say that the chance of an avalanche on a particular slope is 8 percent, what does that mean?" asks Brill, who has taught avalanche safety courses for 13 years. "Well, that means that if there were a hundred slopes that looked like this particular one, eight of them would be likely to slide. That's not good information, because that could be the first slope that you step on to.

"Second thing is if you assign that probability, your error factor may well be huge on the scales of maybe five or 10 times that 8 percent, maybe it's 80 percent, maybe it's 40 percent, maybe it's only .8 percent. But the error is likely to be large as well."

Your biggest aid when traveling in the backcountry is not a shovel or a beacon or a probe. While those are essential items, the most important tool is knowledge. Being able to access information from avalanche centers, recalling weather history and assessing terrain and snow conditions are all essential parts of backcountry travel, whether you are simply ducking under the rope to access some out-of-bounds terrain or setting out for a full backcountry experience.

Avalanche awareness courses taught by certified professionals are available throughout the country. Take one. You'll learn the skills you need to make sound judgments, and the life you save will be your own.

When considering backcountry terrain, "Always be open, always be asking questions, always be inquisitive," says Brill.

For further reading:

Early Season Avalanche Risks:

Avalanche Safety:

Avalanche Equipment:

Matt Stanley, Staff