Mother knows best

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Backcountry skiing A, by Colin Mahoney
Photo by Colin Mahoney

Start learning your backcountry ABCs by recognizing these five signs

The following avalanche tips are dedicated to your mother. If she caught you even so much as thinking about going into avalanche terrain with warning signs like these, she’d smack you repeatedly with her fuzzy slipper and call you all kinds of names she usually reserves for your father. Needless to say, this is not a comprehensive list, just my top five, and it doesn’t take the place of proper avalanche awareness training.

1. Avalanche activity

If you’ve seen evidence of recent avalanches (such as fracture lines or fresh piles of debris), there’s a good chance the snow is still unstable. It’s always possible that stability has improved since those slides came down, but if you’re not sure, this is a good time to call your mum and ask for her opinion.

2. Whoompfing

If you’ve ever heard or felt this unsettling phenomenon, you’re probably also familiar with your body’s sphincter-tightening reaction to it. Now is a good time to trust your physical intuition and tiptoe back the way you came. (And even that route may not be safe.) For those who haven’t experienced it, imagine hearing a sudden “whoompf” under the snow, with the sound starting at your feet and shooting out in all directions. The noise is caused by a weak layer in the snowpack collapsing, and the only reason you’re not already in an avalanche is that the slope you’re on isn’t steep enough to slide.

3. Heavy precipitation

Whether it’s falling in the form of rain or snow, heavy precipitation is always bad for stability in the short term. It’s a simple function of gravity—the new snow is heavy and unconsolidated and, just like you, wants to slide downhill.

4. Rapid warming

There’s nothing like the first warm, sunny day after a streak of cold weather to lure people off-piste. But if the temperature gets close to zero (or even close to -5 if the sun is shining), now is not the time to take chances. As the snow warms up, the bonds holding it all together start to break down, and then it’s just a matter of time before things start to move downhill. Instead of skiing, set yourself up at the lodge with a glass of beer and a giant suntanning mirror—your mother will still think you’re stupid, but she may spare the slipper.

5. Strong wind

A strong wind can move so much snow in such a short period of time that it acts a lot like heavy precipitation. The snow gets scoured from one side of a ridge and dumped on the other. Just like new snow, this redistributed snow is subject to gravity and it has a tendency to crack and slide in huge slabs. Unfortunately, these “wind-loaded” slopes often look the most inviting to skiers. But when you’re evaluating whether or not to drop in, remember that your mother gave birth to you. You owe her.

Backcountry skiing, by Colin Mahoney
Photo by Colin Mahoney
Backcountry skiing C, by Colin Mahoney
Photo by Colin Mahoney
Mark Mallet
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