Winter Trip Safety

Jim Frankenfield;; 1-877-604-0166

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This is some generic safety information for winter trips. The info on the website for each trip will be more specific to that area as far as how much (if any) glacier travel there is, the nature of the snowpack in general for that region, etc.

These trips are unguided (short of specific advance arrangements to the contrary) and you are responsible for your own safety. In the case of an incident of some kind you may also find yourself responsible for a partners rescue/well-being. This is a long way in, an outside response will most likely be measured in days. A VHF radio will be available in the hut.

The two largest concerns, both of which can and should be prepared for, are avalanches and crevasses. Avalanche safety is a skill which requires time in the field and experience to master (if indeed it is even possible to "master" it). Crevasse rescue is a more technical skill which can be learned fairly thoroughly in a class. While all winter trips involve potential avalanche terrain they do not all involve glacier travel.


The snowpack in these areas is transitional to continental. In addition to new snow concerns there may be buried persistent weaknesses in the snowpack. This may be new to you if you are used to a maritime snowpack. Instability caused by these layers is often difficult to assess. A conservative approach to terrain selection is the best safety measure.

It is advisable to have at least a basic recreational avalanche safety class. Beacon, shovel, and probe should be considered essential along with knowledge of how to use them. A study in Colorado showed that only 32% of recreational parties having a full burial incident with beacons were able to recover the person alive. Even allowing for the skewing of statistics, which is inherently toward the negative for a few reasons, the odds of a live recovery are probably less than fifty percent for recreational parties. (This has probably improved with modern technology, particularly in beacons.) This study involved people who were carrying beacons. They were unable to use them effectively and/or to organize the rescue effectively. Not only do you need to carry a beacon, you need to be one of the 30% or so able to effect a full rescue using the beacon, supplementary methods such as spot probing, and solid scene organization. (While only 32% were successful it is likely that nearly 100% thought in advance that they were prepared.)

During the 1999 Fairy Meadows trip the snowpack was quite stable overall. Even so there was one incident within the group sharing the hut with us in which one woman was partially buried in a small slide with soft debris. Two others were in the path or runout area. This was a failure in terrain recognition and safe travel protocols, there was nothing tricky about the snowpack. In another case a person from our group, traveling alone, skied right between two avalanches which had both run naturally during our stay (recently). Both of these things occurred on slopes of the same aspect as those which had released naturally. There was also at least one case (within our group) of an inexperienced person setting a track across an avalanche slope even after being pointed in a safer direction below in a discussion among the travel group. These are the things which a commonly behind avalanche fatalities, not subtleties requiring advanced technical knowledge to identify.

A good recreational course will emphasize routefinding, safety protocols and human factors. Unfortunately far too many classes still spend all their time in snowpits at the expense of these topics. At Blanket Glacier one woman had recently taken a CAA course on Mt Hood. She spent time in the chalet reading "Backcountry Avalanche Awareness" by Bruce Jamieson, which had been given out at the course. Like most good resources it emphasizes the human factors such as those mentioned above over technical snow-pit analysis. After several days of reviewing the book and listening to discussions among the more experienced members of the group she finally asked in frustration why the class had spent so much time on snowpits when the book she was given and the discussions she was hearing downplayed them in favor of "big picture" factors, decision making, and terrain selection. In this case the course had left her more confused rather than more confident.

Courses for ski patrollers and others oriented towards organized after-the-fact rescue often lack many of the elements which are essential in the backcountry. However, they do cover some important things. If a class is not possible then read up as much as possible and plan to travel as part of a subgroup with people who do have the background. Good books to read are Snow Sense and Avalanche Safety for Skiers and Climbers. The first is a good review of the bottom line factors and one of the few books covering decision making well. The second is more in-depth but still readable. Keep in mind that most avalanche victims have had a class, often recently. You will need more than course learning - some mountain sense and experience are key. These take more time outdoors to develop.

Bring a Beacon - Everyone should have a single-frequency 457 kHz beacon. I personally would not want to be out with anyone with anything less. The dual-frequency units are limited and more difficult to use, get a new one. I can get one for you at a discount if you are on an organized trip and need it. More important than the model you have is how good you are with it. Practice before the trip.

Other Gear - Everyone should have a shovel, of course. A sectional probe pole is highly advisable. Again, let me know if you need to get a shovel and/or probe and I will help you out with a discount, if you are going on one of these trips.

Bring your brain and some mountain sense. They are worth far more than most snowpit analyses.


Learn about basic crevasse rescue/extrication if you don't have that skill already. Remember that a crevasse fall can potentially be a major problem - there is more to handling it than just having set up a Z pulley once or twice.

Some of the most gripping self-rescue stories are from winter parties since it is not uncommon to be skiing or snowboarding unroped on glaciers in some areas. Even if this follows some foresight and planning it is still possible to be caught by surprise and fall into a hole. Summer climbers and travelers are much more likely to be roped together on any potentially crevassed terrain, traveling uphill or down. But lets face it - skiing or boarding roped together is a drag so we often evaluate the terrain as best we can and accept a certain risk in return for much better skiing/boarding.

The worst case, short of something impossible to handle, is a person 40 ft down and wedged. Fifty feet of light cord isn't going to cut it here. A half-length of rope may also be inadequate. The team or person on the surface may need to safely rappel into the crevasse, handle lip problems when climbing out and/or hauling out, set up higher power systems, etc. In addition to the C and Z pulleys it is good to know the Canadian drop-loop system, the C-on-Z, and/or other systems. These are technical skills which can be learned through a class and/or some practice so plan ahead and make time for it. A good class will teach an understanding of the general theory of pulley systems and mechanical advantage and not leave you relying on memorizing particular systems. In addition to mechanical advantage systems you may need a variety of other general mountaineering skills, as the above comment on a worst case scenario indicates.

In 1999 some people felt that light cordage would be adequate. One person was even against bringing a couple 9mm climbing ropes as group gear. We sawed snow off the roof with somebody's light cord and it was quickly trashed. I do not consider light cordage to be adequate for major glaciers. If you do that's your choice but don't expect me to travel with you. Here are some notes from the ACMG/AMGA guides manual on the use of light cordage.

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