Last week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued an avalanche advisory, warning back country downhill skiers and snowboarders of possibly threatening conditions in the Adirondacks’ High Peaks and on other steep slopes.
The advisory now remains in effect for the duration of the ski season, according to DEC spokesperson Jeff Wernick.
Both local and national groups noted that, while avalanches are seemingly more common out west, that doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent in the northeast. And everyone, not just skiers, should be aware of the potential hazard.
Roughly 25 to 30 people die each year in avalanche-related accidents, according to Simon Trautman, a National Avalanche Specialist at the National Avalanche Center. Between Feb 1-8, however, 15 people died in such circumstances, with one of those deaths occurring in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
“Anywhere you have mountains and snow, you can have avalanches under the right conditions,” Trautman said. “If you just look at avalanche incidents through time, the vast majority of those incidents happen in the Mountain West. But that doesn’t mean that incidents don’t happen in the east as well. There’s fewer mountains and fewer recreational opportunities, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get the right conditions to have very dangerous seasons out there.”
Avalanches are often caused when there’s a light, loose layer of snowfall, which is then covered up with a stronger and heavier layer on top of the snowpack, according to Trautman. Back in December at the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center in Highmount, a “snow slide” smashed into a lodge and caused serious damage. The event was rare and was caused by heavy rainfall, according to NYS Olympic Regional Development Authority spokesperson Elise Ruocco. ORDA practices avalanche mitigation for guests in specific areas at Whiteface Mountain in the “Slides.” Its other terrain doesn’t classify for avalanche training, Ruocco wrote in an email.
“It’s a foundational condition. It’s like having a weak foundation on your house,” Trautman said. “So the base isn’t as strong as the snow surface, then you can end up with something that can fail and collapse. And avalanches and weather are fundamentally intertwined. Whatever the weather is doing is controlling what the avalanche conditions are doing. It’s about more than just the storm that you’re in, it’s about the weather for the whole season. Depending on the temperature and the wind, all of these things combined to create whatever structure or layers exist in the snowpack.”
The High Peaks saw roughly five to six feet of snow in the last few weeks, according to the DEC, and high winds will cause snow to be deeper on “leeward slopes or areas of snow deposits,” like gullies. The layers of snow are then what may cause potential avalanches.
The ADK Mountain Club recommends that those who plan to go to an area with risk of an avalanche should be prepared. And preparation levels can vary.
“This is particularly relevant for back-country alpine skiers here, those who are going to be going off trails less traveled here, rockslides, where avalanches can occur,” said Ben Brosseau, director of communications. “Avalanche risk is certainly rare for hikers in the high peaks wilderness. It’s certainly something to be aware of, like anything. There’s a lot of these unpredictable factors that go into this, on top of the fact that the DEC has put out this warning. So there’s an added risk in a situation where there already is one. It’s probably best to hold off for a little bit, take some time to explore some other areas where that risk is lower.”
Preparedness starts with monitoring the weather forecast, having the right gear — like an avalanche transceiver, an avalanche probe and an avalanche shovel — knowing how to use that gear and having enough training to be able to recognize hazardous slopes, according to Trautman.
“Skiers and hikers should be aware when the snow cover is unstable,” Wernick said. “Fresh avalanches are the best clue. Snow that cracks, collapses, or makes hollow sounds is also unstable.”
A great resource, both Brosseau and Trautman said, is Avalanche.org, where potential skiers can locate where to take preparedness courses and watch a few videos on the basics — recognizing red flags, performing a rescue and traveling safely.
Avalanche activity tends to dwindle a couple days after a storm, Trautman said. But overall, the best way to stay out of trouble is not to go.
“If they put out a warning, it’s really not a good time to be out there,” Brosseau said. “The slides in the park vary dramatically. The terrain, some of it is extremely steep, and others are not. And the conditions they present vary dramatically, because of both their terrain, but also where they’re facing and what mountain ranges they’re on.”