Be safe while exploring our winter wonderland
Last updated 11/22/2022 at Noon
Although the winter snow pack has only just begun to settle onto the mountains of Sisters Country, winter sports enthusiasts are already starting to venture out into the developing winter wonderlands. Accordingly, it is never too early to start thinking about winter safety.
While winter safety precautions are particularly important for backcountry travelers, others need to take safety measures, as well. Just because most outdoor enthusiasts may not consider themselves to be wilderness adventurers, “light duty” backcountry users can get into trouble, too, if not properly prepared. Something as simple as a family Christmas tree hunt can turn to tragedy if common sense and safety are ignored.
Winter weather conditions can change rapidly and drastically. Disorientation in the woods is common, and tracks can be obliterated by falling snow. As a general rule, if you are out of view of your vehicle, you should already have taken some basic safety measures and be carrying at least some rudimentary emergency equipment.
Cell phones and GPS are good ideas and are easy and convenient to carry, but they should not be considered an alternative to appropriate emergency equipment. Cell phone service in backcountry areas is often limited; and in cold conditions, batteries often run down much faster. Still, if you have one don’t leave it in your car!
Another thing to remember is to always keep children under control and within sight; and, if there are any Y chromosomes in the mix, extra caution should probably be exercised.
When heading off the beaten path, backcountry users should always prepare by carrying appropriate emergency gear. The “Ten Essentials” are a basic starting point. Essentials should include a map, compass, sunglasses, matches, fire starter, first aid kit, lamp with extra batteries, extra food, water, extra clothes, repair materials like duct tape or wire, knife, whistle, emergency blanket, tin cup for melting snow, and other items as appropriate.
And, yes, that adds up to more than 10 items; but remember the old adage that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Another alternative for emergency shelter and blankets are the relatively new emergency bivouac devices, or “bivy bags.” Bivy bags are small, lightweight and designed to preserve body heat in an emergency and are not expensive.
Backcountry users are reminded that search and rescue missions are often hampered by bad weather, deep snow, cold temperatures and poor access. A lost person may have to rely on what they are carrying for several hours, overnight, or even for a day or two. Be a safe and responsible winter outdoor recreationalist, and always inform a responsible friend or family member of the location, duration, and return time of your outing.
In deep snow conditions, tree wells are another danger to avoid. Loose and unconsolidated snow under trees and near other objects can form quicksand-like pits. Ski patrol officials urge caution and warn that skiers and snowboarders in the backcountry should carry shovels and never travel alone.
Curiously, as dangerous as tree wells can be, under certain circumstances, the natural snow cavities can also be used for shelter in an emergency. Very deep tree wells, with unconsolidated snow, should never be entered. However, if the snow is firm and the well is not too deep, a tree well can be the nucleus around which to build an emergency shelter.
Skis and tree branches can be utilized, with a small plastic tarp, to form a roof for a shelter that can be quickly constructed over a tree well. While emergency supplies might seem like a nuisance because of the extra weight, if an unexpected overnight bivouac becomes necessary, such precautions can be the difference between life and death.
It is still early in the snow year; by mid-season, backcountry travelers must also be on the alert for avalanche danger. After mid-winter thaws or multiple compacted snowfalls of differing density, potential avalanche danger can exist on any snow-covered slope. If different layers from different snowstorms are not sufficiently melded, the layers can more easily separate and slide apart, causing an avalanche.
While an avalanche can occur on any slope, they more frequently occur on slopes between 25 and 65 degrees, with the most common range between 30 and 45 degrees. Less-steep slopes can be more stable, and extremely steep slopes may slough snow continually, preventing large buildups of snow.
Backcountry users should be alert to changing conditions and learn to recognize signs that lead to avalanche. Whenever avalanche danger is high, travel is better directed to low-angle terrain that is also away from avalanche path runouts.