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How to Watch Out for Avalanches in Snowy, Mountainous Terrain

Trekking along a mountain in the snow can bring great rewards, but it can also bring great dangers. Like avalanches.

Avalanches are a serious concern for all travelers whose outings take them into snowy, mountainous regions. An avalanche occurs when snow breaks loose on a slope, or when a cornice of snow collapses and tumbles down. Large avalanches can carry away trees and tents, and even a small snowslide can bury a person caught in its path.

Your greatest protection against avalanches is knowing where, how, and when they are likely to happen and then planning routes that take you elsewhere. Indicators of danger include the following:

  • Signs of previous avalanches, like lines or cracks in the snow, or damaged trees. Where avalanches have happened before, they are likely to happen again.
  • Steep terrain. Avalanches often happen on slopes greater than 30 degrees. If you’re a skier, that’s a black diamond-level slope.
  • New snow. It takes a while for fresh snowfall to stabilize. If you step on snow and hear a “whumpf” sound, the snow underneath isn’t stable.
  • Clear variations in snow layers. A weak layer in the snowpack can cause the layers above to break loose and slide.
  • Weather. Changes in air temperature, especially rising near or above freezing, can trigger an avalanche.
  • Sounds that suggest cracking or settling of the snowpack.


  • Complete an avalanche-safety training course taught by qualified experts.
  • Check local avalanche-forecasting networks (operated by weather bureaus and land management agencies) before setting out. The most useful networks are updated at least once a day.
  • Choose travel companions who understand the danger of avalanches and will do their part to manage the risk.
  • Carry avalanche safety equipment and know how to use it. Battery-powered beacons worn by each group member emit a radio signal that can be picked up by the beacons of others.


If you get caught in an avalanche, ditch your backpack and skis and begin “swimming” in the snow to keep yourself upright and your head above the surface. As the snow slows and settles, push snow away from your face to create an air pocket so you can breathe.

Should others in your party be caught in an avalanche, keep your eye on them as long as you can, and note the exact place you saw them last. Hopefully, they’ll be wearing avalanche beacons so that you can recover them quickly. If not, listen for their voices, probe the area with ski poles from which you’ve removed the baskets, and don’t give up hope. Sturdy short-handled shovels made of plastic or metal can prove invaluable for freeing avalanche victims.

People have survived under the snow for 30 minutes before being rescued. Treat avalanche victims for shock and hypothermia.


  • Falling rocks pose a danger to unwary backcountry travelers. Loose stones at the base of a cliff might indicate a likelihood of rockfall. If you hear a rock clattering down, or if you accidentally kick one loose, shout “Rock!” to warn those below to take cover.
  • As with any trek adventure risks, don’t be reluctant to change your plans or postpone a trip when avalanche danger is high. The mountains will still be there for you after conditions have improved.

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