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Avalanche Safety: KISS

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By Scotty Savage Avalanche Educator

Las Vegas might be the world’s
greatest place to make New Year’s
resolutions. As I took in the sights
on The Strip on a recent December
evening, I couldn’t help but think
about how to better myself in the
coming year.

Yeah, right.

But I did come up with some quality
New Year’s resolutions while
putting Sin City in the rear view
mirror. For all the sledders, boarders
and skiers who like to play on
Southwest Montana’s slopes, how
about this resolution: KISS more

I’m not talking about the ‘70s hair
band or wet sloppy ones under the
mistletoe—although there’s nothing
wrong with either of those. I’m
talking about committing to a principle,
especially whenever you’re
in avalanche terrain the next couple

Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS for

Before delving into KISS, we
should examine this year’s snowpack.
November and December’s
weather has quickly erased memories
of last year’s epic winter.

The feeble snowfall and cool temperatures
have created a shallow
snowpack with plenty of weak, sugary
faceted snow crystals. If you’ve
been reading the Gallatin National
Forest Avalanche Center advisories
at, you’ve read
about these nasty devils daily.

Additionally, many slopes have
buried layers of surface hoar. In the
avalanche world, facets and surface
hoar are known as persistent weak
layers and are capable of producing
avalanches months after their

Slopes with persistent weak layers
are notoriously tough to evaluate
and are the sites of the majority of
the avalanche fatalities in Southwest
Montana and North America.

Since slopes can slide on these
weak layers days or weeks after
the last snowfall, even avalanche
experts struggle to predict exactly
when facets and surface hoar will
strengthen and these slopes will

So, what can recreational fun hogs
do to combat these tricky avalanche
conditions? Should you just throw
in the towel, stay inside and watch
TV? No way! Commit to KISS.

Focus on simple rules and pieces of
information to deal with the tricky
avalanche conditions we’ll see for
the foreseeable future:

• Avoid avalanche terrain for
at least a couple days after
any storm or fresh wind load.
Beware of “cumulative loads”—
series of small storms that can
add up to significant snowfall
over several days.

• Choose to play on simple, “low
consequence” terrain—terrain
that probably won’t kill you if
you do get caught in an avalanche.
Steer clear of terrain traps (gullies,
creeks, moraines), cliffs and
sparsely treed avalanche slopes.

• Pay attention to “bull’s eye”
data—recent avalanche activity
on similar slopes, collapsing and
whumphing, and shooting cracks.
Minimize exposure to avalanche
terrain by exposing only
one person at a time to avalanche
hazard. DO NOT help
your buddy dig out his stuck
sled half way up the slope. Skiers
and boarders—make sure
you watch your partner shred
from a safe spot, NOT in the
run out zone where the debris
will pile up.

• Carry avalanche rescue gear and
know how to use it. Practice
regularly. Take advantage of the
mediocre riding conditions by
spending some extra time fine tuning
your beacon skills.

Last winter’s deep, stable snowpack
allowed us to visit all kinds of seldom
visited places without consequence,
but this year is an entirely
different beast. Now is not the time
to high mark big slopes or ski complex
alpine lines. Instead, consider
choosing simpler, more forgiving
terrain until the persistent weak
layers in our snowpack strengthen

How long might this take? In past
years, we’ve observed avalanche
activity over 100 days after the
formation of some faceted layers
in Southwest Montana—yep,
bummer! Hopefully this year’s
facets and surface hoar strengthen
faster than that, but this gambler
wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime,
remember your New Year’s
resolutions and commit to keeping
it simple.

Scotty Savage really likes Vegas.
He also likes learning from his and
others’ avalanche-related mistakes
and teaching avalanche professionals
and recreationists about avalanches,
snow science, and decision-making
in avalanche terrain.

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