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Snow Safety

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by Liang Kaixiang

To chase after the fresh powder and first tracks down a slope, backcountry skiers have to rely on their partners and their own skills to minimise the risk and exposure to avalanche prone terrain. It is strongly recommended that you take an avalanche skills training course or engage the services of a professional guide prior to backcountry skiing, but here are a few basic things to know:

Firstly, avalanche is a rapid flow of snow down a surface that is triggered by the release of additional snow or existing snow that is unable to adhere to the surface.

This results in generally two types of avalanche:
Loose snow Avalanches: this occurs where there is little or no cohesion in the snowpack. They start at a point on or near the surface and gather more snow as they progress down the slope.

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Slab Avalanches: A layer of snow (slab) breaks away from the layer beneath it and slides downhill. As the snowpack grows, there are weak layers due to varying weather conditions during accumulation. When triggered by the presence of more weight, such as a skier, the top layer fractures and break off from the underlying layer.

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Avoiding Avalanches
Avalanche fatalities are a result of suffocation in the snow as well as trauma. The survival rate of avalanche victims are historically low, hence it is important to minimise exposure to avalanche terrain. Avalanche terrain is an area where there is a high probability of unstable snowpack.

There are many factors that give rise to unstable snowpack, mainly terrain and weather. Terrain includes the slope angle (generally, avalanches occur most frequently between 30 to 45 degrees), slope aspect (north or south facing) and terrain hazards such as gullies, leeward slopes and convex slopes. The consistency in which the snow compacts is determined by the weather, such as the amount and type of precipitation, the temperature, as well as prevailing wind direction.

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Despite the presence of objective factors, research has shown that the leading cause of avalanche incidents is the human factor, i.e. bad decisions made from interpretations of existing conditions. The only way to minimise this is to get more experience under professional instruction.

Preparing for Avalanches
There is no way to eliminate the possibility of an avalanche occurring, therefore having the appropriate rescue gear will provide you with the highest chance for survival should an incident occur. The effectiveness of the gear is only as good as your knowledge and skill in using them, and this comes from proper instruction and lots of practice.

There are three pieces of equipment which you will need: avalanche transceiver/beacon, shovel and probe.
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The transceiver transmits the position of the victim, and it also does the job of receiving the signal to find locate the victim for the rescuers. The shovel is use to test snow conditions and to dig out victims. The probe is a collapsible pole used to probe for buried victims.

Checklist
There’s no adventure and excitement of backcountry skiing without any risk. You cannot eliminate risk unless you stay at home, so here’s a checklist to help you minimise the risk before you get out there to enjoy the fresh snow.

  • Get educated about avalanche with a professional
  • Practice using your transceiver, shovel and probe
  • Make sure your group members have avalanche training and preferably a similar risk tolerance
  • Check the avalanche forecast at your destination
  • Be observant and be willing to turn back when conditions are not ideal
  • Hire a guide

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