On a crystalline blue morning in the Chugach Mountains southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, Mike Welch skis about 70 yards through untouched powder before stopping abruptly. The helicopter that delivered him and three other skiers into the mountains has since disappeared, leaving the group to commune with the quiet.
The Chugach National Forest covers nearly 7,000,000 acres—about the size of New Hampshire—and is comprised of jagged glaciated peaks that extend right to the ocean’s edge. It gets absolutely blasted with winter snow. That terrain, plus so much snowfall, makes this place an outdoor-sports paradise. But it can also be deadly.
Welch, the snow safety director and lead guide for helicopter skiing operator Chugach Powder Guides, removes a shovel from his backpack. Above him, on a slope nicknamed the Reef, the other skiers stand waiting, itching to lay down tracks on the beckoning curtain of snow but not daring to proceed without a go-ahead from Welch. A moment later, Welch’s voice crackles over the radio: Sit tight for a few minutes, guys. I’m going to dig a pit.
Avalanches, especially in winters like this one, with huge, even record-breaking snows, kill about 25 to 30 people in the US every year. Data give the false impression that things are no safer now than they were a generation ago, but with so many more people recreating in the backcountry, things are indeed a lot safer thanks in part to technology. For outdoor enthusiasts, and especially for businesses like Chugach Powder Guides, application of the latest safety tech is essential.
Transceivers, or avalanche beacons, are nearly ubiquitous nowadays. Should one or more members of a party get buried, those who were not caught in the slide can switch their beacons from send mode to search mode and begin the hurried hunt for anyone under the snow.
The big change in rescue tech over the last decade is avalanche airbags. Whereas airbags for cars cushion against sudden impact, airbags for skiers and riders are floatation devices. They are really just fancy balloons that deploy from the top and sides of the backpack. A tug on the trigger, usually incorporated into the backpack shoulder strap, deploys a compressed-air canister that in turn inflates the balloon. Other airbag models use extremely high-speed fans to do the trick. The balloon makes the skier more buoyant, and therefore more likely to ride at the surface of the moving snow and, crucially, stay there when the whole nightmare finally comes to a halt. (This is why people say that if you are caught in an avalanche, move your arms in a treading water motion to try to stay at the surface.)
Prototype airbags were developed in the late 1980s, but it took years of refinement for anything resembling market adoption. Since around 2005, people have been using them, especially in Europe, says Henry Munter, the general manager at Chugach Powder Guides. Still, it was a quiet trend.
That changed with data. Statistics showed that people in the backcountry were not as likely to die if they were wearing an airbag. In the past five years or so, airbags have become a must for heli-skiing operators, as well as savvy backcountry skiers and snowmobilers who have a sincere interest in making it home for dinner. “It adds an incredible margin of safety,” Munter says.
That said, a focus on equipment to save your skin is…backwards. “Rescue tech gets the attention, but if you need that, things have gone bad already,” Munter says. Snow safety is really about risk assessment. Big data, forecasting resources, and mobile apps help paint a more precise picture of the history and hazards of a given slope on a given day. Yet just knowing the terrain can matter more than anything.
“Most avalanches happen within 24 hours of a storm and on slopes greater than 30 degrees,” Munter says. For backcountry adventurers or heli-guides, the assessments start well before their morning coffee: What slopes do they have in mind, and have there been recent snows or big temperature swings? What’s the weather supposed to be?
Which brings us back to snow-how, to Welch and the pit. The goal of the snow-pit forecasting technique is quite straightforward: inspect for a weak layer of snow that may exist beneath all that inviting power. Disturbed by a skier or of its own accord, a weak layer can, with no notice, send everything sliding, slowly at first, then barreling downhill in a cloud of destruction. Snow-pit science does have its intricacies—precise cuts with a shovel or snow saw, the examination of snow crystal types, and conducting a snow column stability test, to name a few—so don’t expect you’ll be ready to conquer the backcountry after reading this and watching some three-minute video. Go take a class.
The truth is that snow-safety strategy hasn’t changed all that much in the digital age. Know the local mountains; stability can vary widely from one side of a single peak or ridge to the other. Know the weather and precipitation history. Dig a pit and look for weak layers. Do this over and over, in location after location. During that day in the Chugach last month, Welch dug no fewer than five pits.
What has changed, to everyone’s benefit, is that this snow-how is no longer done in isolation. People dig pits wearing GoPro cameras, sometimes uploading their findings on the spot, and sharing with various forecasting centers, professional networks, and even social media. (Munter’s mother used to be an avalanche forecaster in Sun Valley, Idaho. “Back then, sharing [findings] meant a phone call.”) The more data, and the more sharing, the better for everyone who wants to keep their backcountry risks as low as possible.