5 Essential Steps of Route-Planning and Avalanche Safety
by: Anna SzlaviCategory: Avalanche, Mountaineering, Ski Touring
When you get too familiar…
Do you also have a favourite climbing spot, a nearby mountain, where you can just escape, for a day or two, whenever you are fed up with the noise of urban life? Part of why you love this place is because it is close — yet it has all the beauty of the back-country — and thus you have been going out there all your life. (Well, or at least for years.)
You feel you know the mountain by heart. It is already routine-like how you just spontaneously pack up after a stressful Friday and just go “bye-bye, office!” You don’t consider much; you tend to take it easy.
But you are forgetting that going out in the back-country is always dangerous!
What about avalanche safety?
Well, I hate to break it to you: you might be making a huge mistake with your getaways! You simply cannot underestimate the importance of preparation.
Even if you know the terrain, you must get yourself updated about the current snow situation and weather, and thus start your route-planning.
Did you know?
Especially in the winter, avalanches are fairly frequent. Approximately 150 people die and several hundreds get injured in avy accidents each year. Most of the cases could have been prevented: a large number of victims were simply unprepared.
And you know, avalanches are not picky. They won’t spare you just because you have bagged this mountain or slid on this slope before. Once you are out there, the avalanche can get you.
So what can you do?
You should take route-planning seriously. It is actually not that difficult, and once you know what to pay attention to, you can significantly reduce your risks while still home. From this blogpost, you’ll learn the essential steps of route-planning.
Besides, you should realize that most avalanche accidents could be prevented if you learn some mindhacks. It is your mind that tricks you into situations that you are normally well aware they’re dangerous.
Wanna know the 8 mindtraps so you can escape avy scenarios? Download it from here.
Step-by-Step Guide to Route-Planning
Here’s a step-by-step guide on what (and when) to consider before you head out, even on a 1-2-day adventure. To make it as practical and specific as possible, I’ll be using an actual example. We went to Schneeberg, in the Austrian Alps, two weeks apart. The situation was very different, even in such a short time.
Schneeberg (2,076m) on January 21 & February 4
1) Weather Forecast
What you want to look at is temperature, wind, and precipitation all week. It is not only the specific day of the trip that is relevant, but all the preceding days.
Was there heavy snowing before your trip? Was there a general increase in temperature? All these can increase the likelihood of avalanches.
In our case, the first trip to Schneeberg late January promised to be uncomplicated. We had heavy snowfall on the preceding week, but the temperature stayed low and the wind was insignificant. It seemed safe.
In the second case, however, the first week of February brought warm weather, so the snow started melting and the wind also promised to be powerful all week.
2) Avalanche Forecast
Check the avalanche situation, again, at least a week before you are going. Each region has its own website for avalanche forecast. In the case of the Austrian Alps, it is lawinen.at, and more specifically for Schneeberg (East Austria), there is also a more detailed forecast here.
You are interested in not only the level of avalanche danger, but what can potentially cause it, in what time of the day, or on which slope orientations.
Like I said before, the safety of our second trip seemed questionable on the preceding week. With the heavy wind and the rising temperature, the avalanche danger did reach to level 2, and even to level 3.
On Wednesday, 3 days before our trip, it promised to get worse by the end of week. However, by Friday the weather became somewhat more stable, and for Saturday we had mild avalanche danger forecast. We had to watch out for South-facing slopes, however, due to the wind.
Once you know what to watch out for (like a specific orientation, specific time of the day, etc.), you can start planning your route.
We generally use hillmap.com for this. What’s great about this tool is that, beside getting info on length, elevation, and steepness of the specific path, it is linked with Google Earth, so you can pretty much get an accurate picture of what to expect. It is also fairly easy to use (you click on Path / Edit Path or Delete Points if you want to modify), and once you have your route, you can export the gpx.
In our case, the avalanche warning regarded South-facing slopes to be dangerous, especially below 1,400m. So what we decided to do is take the ski lift on the way up, partly to save time and facilitate a descent before sunset, and partly to escape the dangerous elevations.
In addition, we checked if we can avoid South slopes, and unlike in our summer ascent route, the winter route did not involve such parts.
4) Go or No-Go
After you have gone through your path options, based on the current weather and avalanche situation, you need to make a decision whether it is safe to go or not.
Note that it is NOT enough just to depend on the forecast danger level (say 2). Most avalanches happen when mild or moderate danger was forecast!
Even though we did have some avalanche warning, we decided to go considering that our route should be OK. At the same time, we each took an avalanche beacon, an avalanche probe, and some shovels.
Schneeberg (2,076m) on January 21 & February 4
Once you are back home, don’t forget to do the journaling. Many mountain athletes skip this step, even if it is vital, and very educational, to take notes of what you had seen before in the forecasts and how you had planned your route, and what you encountered in reality.
Your experiences — if you learn from them — can make the route-planning process more speedy, more accurate, and more routine-like.
Well, probably you noticed that in this article not only did I attempt to give you a guide on how to prepare for your trips, but I also accomplished my journaling duties. 🙂
Wanna Know More About Avalanche Safety?
It is very useful to know about the above route-planning routine, but remember, it is far from a comprehensive avy mastery.
As you can guess, avalanche prevention is a very complex issue, but if you wanna take home just the most essential knowledge, it is the Mindset.
Most avalanche accidents can be prevented once you are aware of the 8 Mindtraps that are usually the reason people fall victim to dangerous situations.
If you take your safety, and the safety of your pals, seriously — and given that you are reading this post, you do — then here’s what you wanna check out next.
Learn the 8 Mindtraps so you escape avalanches.