Avalanche Experts Cite Human Factor in Snowslides

January 27, 2009

Backcountry adventurers increase their chances of being killed in snowslides when they overestimate their own abilities, said avalanche experts meeting in central Idaho.

At a public forum, the experts also said the danger increases when skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers succumb to peer pressure or incorrectly assume their familiarity with the terrain makes the situation safe.

“That’s the human factor,” said Ian McCammon, an avalanche researcher who owns SnowPit Technologies in Salt Lake City.

Many winter backcountry users try to protect themselves from avalanches by first analyzing the snowpack by digging into it, looking for layers that might easily break off from a layer underneath.

The experts said that taking the scientific approach and analyzing the slide potential in a snowpack is one thing, but backcountry users should also try to analyze their own decisions — or essentially listen to their inner voice of reason.

The U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center says 31 people have been killed by avalanches in the western United States and Canada so far this winter. That includes a 21-year-old Idaho man, Joshua J. Jenkins of Idaho Falls, who was buried under 8 feet of snow on Montana’s Mount Jefferson in January while snowmobiling.

McCammon said that something “really strange” happens when people are in avalanche terrain. He said that most people would shake their heads at someone traversing a dangerous slope in the distance, but that the same people tend to overlook the danger when they’re risking their own lives, the Idaho Mountain Express reported.

“You go, ‘I can’t believe they’re going up under these conditions,'” he said.

In an attempt to help backcountry users recognize that kind of thinking, he has come up with a checklist he calls “ALP TRUTH,” which stands for Avalanches, snow Loading, Path (obvious slide paths), Terrain traps, Rating (Considerable or higher rating by avalanche forecasters), Unstable snow (collapsing, cracking or whomping) and Thaw instability.

He said most avalanches that involve people happen after at least three of the checklist items are ignored.

Hans-Peter Marshall, assistant professor with the Department of Geosciences at Boise State University, and Christine Pielmeier, from the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, also spoke at the presentation.

They are developing techniques to determine snowpack stability quickly and across long distances.

Marshal is using radar to look at snowpack layers, while Pielmeier has developed a “Snow Micropen,” a device that penetrates the snowpack to analyze tiny inconsistencies. The researchers said the new techniques could help avalanche forecasters.

“I think the kind of work being done is needed,” said Karl Birkeland, a Montana-based avalanche scientist with the National Avalanche Center who also took part in the discussion.

As part of his presentation, Birkeland showed a video of a huge slide that caught a skier and swept him to his death in a stand of evergreen trees.

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