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Updated Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 03:40 PM

Be ready for an avalanche before there is one

By Nicole Tsong
Special to The Seattle Times

I ASSOCIATE the backcountry with adrenaline junkies. I know my fair share but have never joined their ranks. I will always pick the quiet whoosh of skate skis over arduous climbs up steep slopes for a run through fresh powder.

But I like to snowshoe, which experts say means I am among the people who need to think about the backcountry and things like avalanches.

Many people have the misperception that snowshoeing is less risky than backcountry skiing. Skiers and snowmobilers do cover more terrain, says Oyvind Henningsen, an avalanche educator and chairman of the Everett Mountain Rescue Unit, but snowshoers are still trodding through the same terrain.

"A lot of trails in the Cascades traverse dangerous slopes or have paths below them," says Benj Wadsworth, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. You still need to know what terrain and conditions to travel in and what to look out for, he says, including what's above you and the hazards on any given day.

A healthy respect for avalanches is a good thing, especially with interest in backcountry skiing exploding. It's the fastest growing sector of the ski industry right now, Wadsworth says, and has grown into an issue for ski areas. In early 2012 three skiers and one snowboarder were killed by avalanches in backcountry near Washington ski areas.

But people can take a few basic steps to help keep themselves safe, experts agree.

The first is to check the avalanche center's website for an avalanche forecast that applies to the mountain region you're headed for. The five-step rating ranges from low to extreme. If it's considerable — the middle rating — Wadsworth says you should know what you're doing before heading out. If it's high or extreme, stay out of mountain areas that aren't managed.

Also, be aware that storms often trigger avalanche conditions, Henningsen says. Snowpack doesn't like rapid changes. Storms that start cold then warm up, storms with a lot of wind or rain on snow all can contribute to dangerous avalanche conditions.

Regardless of whether you plan to snowshoe, ski or snowmobile, the experts recommend taking a free avalanche-education class. The classes, offered through Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, give a rundown of what to look for.

"It's an awareness," Henningsen says. "You wear a seat belt in the car, look before crossing the road, so why wouldn't you take an avalanche awareness lecture?"

If you want to really devote yourself to a backcountry sport, experts say take a longer avalanche course, where you will learn not only to read slopes and terrain but also what to do if you get caught in one despite your precautions.

Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com.

Be prepared

For avalanche forecasts: the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, http://www.nwac.us/

For places to take an avalanche class: http://www.nwac.us/calendar/

To prepare: Oyvind Henningsen advises you to anticipate changing conditions; have clothing and footwear for those conditions; bring the 10 Essentials (a list of tools for survival; see www.rei.com). Leave your trip plan with someone; include instructions on what to do if you are not back in time. If you are traveling in avalanche terrain, have the proper avalanche-safety gear and know how to use it. At a minimum, carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe.


AARON JAFFE / THE SEATTLE TIMES
As beautiful and alluring as our snow-covered mountains can be, danger lurks in the backcountry beyond groomed areas like this one at Crystal Mountain




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