Avalanche is backcountry danger


Last updated 3/7/2023 at Noon

Avalanches kill 25-30 persons in the U.S. every year with many more injured each winter, according to the National Avalanche Center. At present the Central Oregon Cascades are at Level 3 risk (Considerable) on a 5-point scale.

So far in the 2022-23 season, there are 14 recorded deaths including the one reported on page 1: seven in Colorado, three in neighboring Washington, all on February 19 at Colchuck Peak near Leavenworth, and one each in Oregon, Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming.

Four were skiers, one a snowboarder, five were snowmobiling, three were categorized as snowshoer/climber/hiker, and one was not classified. For the 2021-22 season the number was 17.

Accidents and loss of life and serious injury can be mitigated by having the right gear, recognizing red flags, and knowing the terrain. However, backcountry skiing is always risky, and even the well-prepared can be caught by circumstances, as was the case in last week’s fatal incident.

When engaged in backcountry activities, plan for the worst case.


Go to avalanche.org and take the online tutorials and/or watch the demonstration videos. Locally, Three Sisters Backcountry offers avalanche training, with one schedule for March 12-14 subject to availability ([email protected]); or take a Level 1 or Level 2 course at Central Oregon Community College.

Know Before You Go is a free basic avalanche awareness presentation aimed at highlighting introductory concepts and tools for traveling in avalanche terrain. From their website:

“Learn about the destructive power of avalanches, safety equipment, how people get in trouble, and the basics of how to avoid them. In line with COAC’s mission of increasing avalanche awareness and safety in Central Oregon, this presentation will provide a good foundation for learning about backcountry travel or is an excellent refresher for more experienced backcountry users.”


Always carry an avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel, and know how to use them. Strongly consider riding with an inflatable avalanche airbag pack.

Know the terrain

Avalanches can occur on any slope steeper than 30 degrees, and are most frequent on slopes 35 to 50 degrees. An inclinometer is a wise investment if you’re seriously into backcountry fun.

Listen for the danger sounds, which include cracking or collapsing sounds or drum-like noises. The heavier the snowfall in the preceding day or days, the more unstable the snow.

Avoid cornices and drifts that have been formed by wind. Rapid melting or extended days above the freezing mark can increase avalanche potential.

Don’t go alone

You can’t dig yourself out of an avalanche. Keep separation. Never expose more than one person at a time to slopes prone to avalanche. Don’t expose yourself. Avalanches generally flow into wide, gentle, open terrain.


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