Myths about avalanche danger

After one of the biggest snow seasons in recent history, the Lake Tahoe Basin is blanketed in white giving powder hounds and back-country enthusiasts plenty of terrain in which to play. Before heading into the back country, local avalanche forecasters stress the importance of being prepared, taking precautions, doing research and knowing the truth about common avalanche myths.

READ MORE: Avalanche education resources

A shelf of snow dropped under the Blazing Zephyr chair at Mt. Rose Ski Area.

Being prepared with the right equipment is essential. Always carry a compass or compass app, shovel, beacon and probe in off-piste land and always go with a friend. If you get buried in an avalanche, only your friend can dig you out, which is why everyone in the group should carry avalanche gear.

READ MORE: Avalanche training will save your life

“If 1 in 5 people go out in the back country with a beacon, who’s the lucky one? If an avalanche is triggered and everyone gets caught in it, you have very little time to dig everyone out,” says Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC) executive director Don Triplat.

“Avalanches travel at speeds of 50 to 80 mph. It feels like someone is pulling a rug out from under you and that’s hard to escape.” – Andy Anderson

“A big thing in our travel techniques is determining what is avalanche terrain and what is not,” says SAC forecaster Andy Anderson. “We think we know what the slope angle is, but we don’t actually measure it.”

Measure it.

“Look at the avalanche forecast before you go out, but pull out a compass and double-check yourself,” says Anderson. “The percentage of people going out with a compass is probably low because they already go out with their smartphone, but the problem is they don’t use it.”

Although a lot of avalanches happen at slopes steeper than 30 degrees, a wet slab avalanche can happen on lower-angled terrain, as well. Which direction the slope is facing can also provide some insights into what type of avalanche can be released. Anderson says that on a mixed precipitation day, northwest- and southeast-facing slopes are a problem. However, on a sunny and warm day with an east wind blowing, he says adventurers should be wary of all south-facing slopes.

READ MORE: Science of snow: Forecasting avalanche conditions

Check the SAC Web site before going out. The staff forecasters say that no matter how good the snow looks, moderate avalanche danger exists on all elevations, especially on wind-loaded slopes.

According to Anderson, people make mistakes because they are uneducated about potential avalanche danger and they believe myths that have perpetuated within the community:

Myth 1 | Loud sounds cause avalanches.

The weight of the snow or compressed force causes a slide.

Myth 2 | When buried in an avalanche, dig a little air pocket and spit to determine which way is up. Then dig up.

“You won’t be able to move at all when buried because the snow sets up like concrete,” says Triplat.

“That’s true,” Anderson adds. “Once completely buried, only your partner can dig you out. Around 75 percent of people die from asphyxiation, 25 percent from trauma, which is probably higher in Lake Tahoe due to all of the obstacles in an avalanche path, and around 2 percent die from hypothermia.”

Myth 3 | There is no avalanche danger 24 hours after a snowstorm.

This is simply not true. The snow does not stabilize in one day after a snowstorm.

“More than half of the calls about avalanches come in after 24 hours since a storm has passed,” says Anderson.

Myth 4 | Avalanches can come out of nowhere.

They are predictable and usually people set them off.

Myth 5 | When an avalanche is triggered, you can ski out of the way to avoid getting caught up in it.

“Avalanches travel at speeds of 50 to 80 mph,” says Anderson. “It feels like someone is pulling a rug out from under you and that’s hard to escape.”

The chances of skiing out of the way when an avalanche is coming toward you are slim to none.

Myth 6 | Only slopes with a deep snowpack can set off avalanches.

Avalanches can be triggered on a foot or less of snow if the conditions allow.

“As long as you have a slab layer and a weak layer, it doesn’t matter how deep it is,” says Anderson.

Myth 7 | If you see ski or snow tracks in an area, that area is stable.

Just because you see evidence that people were there, it doesn’t mean the snow is stable. It means that whoever made those tracks was lucky. You should constantly do research and be prepared.

Myth 8 | Avalanches don’t happen on forested slopes.

Skiing through the trees doesn’t provide immunity from avalanches. If anything, it creates more obstacles to hit if you get swept up in one.

Even if you aren’t venturing into the back country, it’s always good to be prepared and aware of one’s surroundings in heavy snowstorms. Keep the cell phone charged, carry a shovel and check SAC’s Web site for current conditions.

The Lake Valley Fire Protection District in Meyers also offers free beacon training and free air canister refills for back-country airbags. Call (530) 577-3737 for more information.

Avalanche education resources
Tahoe Mountain Sports
Tahoe Backcountry Women
Alpenglow Sports
Tahoe Cross Country Center
Tahoe Institute for Natural Science
Backcountry Babes
Alpine Skills International
Expedition: Kirkwood
Mt. Rose Mountain Safety
Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows Avalanche Awareness Clinics
Tahoe Backcountry Alliance
Sierra Alpine Education
Jones Snowboards
Bridgeport Avalanche Center
Donner Summit Avalanche seminars