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Avalanche Accident Prevention: What You Need to Know Before Heading Out on the Slopes

Published On: Jan 18 2013 05:00:00 PM CST

There have been at least three avalanche accidents in the Northstate over the past ten years, not including the Lake Tahoe ski areas. And over the last 10 winters in the United States, an average of 25 people died in avalanches each year.

[For more, see our interactive map below]

As soon as the mountains are covered in white, people take to the back country skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling—all activities that can easily trigger a dangerous and sometimes deadly avalanche.

After investigating the ways in which snow sport enthusiasts can avoid being buried, we discovered that about 90 percent of all avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or someone in their party.

Furthermore, once a victim is buried under the snow, after only 15 minutes his chance of survival significantly decreases.

To ensure people stay out of harm’s way, Mt. Shasta Avalanche Specialist Nick Meyers routinely tests the terrain to determine the danger level.

Thirty to 45 degrees is prime avalanche terrain so whenever Meyers heads out to do his forecast for the day, he brings along his slope meter and uses it to measure the slope angle.

As he sits at about 20 degrees, he says that he is safe.

Below 30 is not steep enough to slide, and if the slope angle is above 45 degrees, it is so steep that snow actually slides off naturally.

Meyers also heads out to various terrains to dig pits in order to test the snow’s stability.

He performs a compression test to identify the weak layers in the snowpack, which can typically cause an avalanche.

The weak layers will give way, causing the snow above those layers to slide downhill.

“If we can educate [the skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers] and give them as much knowledge as possible, hopefully we get everyone to come home safely and prevent fatalities,” Meyers said.

For Meyers, he says it is all about being proactive and informing people about the conditions.

The map below tracks avalanche accidents and deaths on record for the past three seasons from 2013 to 2010. None of the below incidents took place at Mt. Shasta, however, Mt. Shasta has seen at least three avalanche accidents over the last 10 years.