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How to stay safe when venturing into avalanche terrain

On Sunday, Jan. 24, three people died in two separate avalanches across the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest.

One backcountry skier was killed and another injured near Mount Baker Ski Area in Washington, while two out-of-area skiers were killed in a slide just outside of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming.

Those three deaths are just the latest in what has been a string of deadly avalanche incidents across the country and the world this month.

Since Jan. 16, there have been 10 fatalities reported in six different states, and 11 total so far for the month, which is the largest number of deaths in January since 1998, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said. For the entire 2014-15 season, 11 total fatalities were reported across the U.S.

On Jan. 13, three people were killed in the French Alps when an avalanche struck the ski resort of Les Deux Alps. Just several days later, another slide killed five French Foreign Legionnaires in the Alps, according to the BBC.

Trent Meisenheimer, an avalanche forecaster and education and awareness specialist for the Utah Avalanche Center, said almost all avalanches are induced by human activity.

"Most of the time a snowpack needs a trigger, something to trigger the avalanche and usually that's a human," Meisenheimer said.

Despite the inherent danger, many recreationists will continue to flock to the backcountry to take advantage of vast areas of untouched powder, according to Meisenheimer. Still, he cautioned that there are a number of preparedness strategies and safety measures people should take to safely navigate through avalanche terrain.

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Have the proper gear and monitor current conditions

According to the Jackson Hole News & Guide, in addition to being unfamiliar with the area, the victims of the avalanche near Jackson Hole did not have any avalanche gear or equipment.

For those heading out to the backcountry, the three basic minimum items to obtain would be an avalanche rescue beacon, shovel and probe, Meisenheimer said. A first aid kit and CPR training would be key as well, he added.

There are also avalanche airbag backpacks, which deploy airbags just like in a car and are crucial for keeping people near the surface of the snow. The bags are becoming increasingly popular and are said to roughly double a person's chance at surviving an avalanche.

Remaining near the surface is crucial, because 93 percent of avalanche victims can be recovered alive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. The survival rate drops to 20-30 percent after 45 minutes.

People should also always keep an eye on the current snow conditions and check the avalanche forecast to see where the highest risks for avalanches are located.

"You need to get that forecast, you need to know what the avalanche center is telling you to watch out for, what type of avalanches that you're going to maybe find or encounter," Meisenheimer said.

Identify the red flags and know the terrain

Snow and avalanche science can be very complicated, Meisenheimer said, but he pointed out that there are ways to monitor dangerous conditions.

1. It is important to pay attention to recent avalanche activity, including whether avalanches have occurred on the same elevation that you are skiing or riding on. Avalanches generally occur on slopes steeper than 35 degrees, according to the National Avalanche Center.

2. Listen and watch for cracking and collapsing which can indicate weakness in the snowpack. A loud "whumpfing" noise is also a sign of instability. The whumpfing sound has been described as similar to rolling thunder.

3. Monitor the wind. Anytime that the wind is blowing, generally avalanche conditions are getting worse because wind can transport snow from one side of the mountain to the other, Meisenheimer explained.

4. Heavy snowfall in a short amount of time. The snowpack doesn't like rapid change, but rather change over time, Meisenheimer said. If 3 or 4 feet of snow falls quickly in the mountains, it's much different than stacking a couple of inches over an extended period of time.

5. Several days of heavy snow followed by a rapid warmup can impact the snowpack structure. "It makes the snowpack heavier, which can add stress to the weak layers. It also can form wet avalanches that usually start from a point and fan out," Meisenheimer said.

Don't go for the ride

Even if a person were to get caught in the middle of an avalanche, they still have several methods to escape danger, but they have to think fast.

"When you first trigger an avalanche, you're only going to have a couple seconds to probably react," Meisenheimer said. "The best thing you can possibly do is not go for the ride."

The main technique for skiers or snowboarders is to head straight downhill to pick up speed then angle off to the side of the moving slab of snow. If a person is unable to get off the slab, swimming uphill to allow the snow to rush by, or grabbing onto a tree, are a few of the strategies that skiers or riders should try.

Most victims tend to die from carbon dioxide poisoning as a result of their carbon dioxide building up around them in the snow. To combat this, the Utah Avalanche Center recommends clearing an airspace in front of your mouth when buried.

The bottom line is that you want to keep fighting to stay toward the surface of the snow, and "go for the sunlight" Meisenheimer said.

Take an avalanche safety course

There are a number of free educational resources available online that cover a myriad of safety basics and highlight the science behind avalanches. Meisenheimer said he recently produced a video for Know Before You Go, a non-profit program created in 2004 to teach people how to have fun and stay safe when traveling through areas at risk for avalanches.

Local avalanche centers also regularly hold classes and tutorials which are taught by certified professionals and targeted to different levels of experience. To find the avalanche center nearest you, click here.

"You need to go learn from the [professionals] and know how they're traveling around in the mountains," Meisenheimer said.

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