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8 Tips for Safe Snow Travel

Winter Snow Travel Safety

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Cornices are extremely dangerous. Don't stand on one or beneath one.

A climber probes a cornice with his ice axe on Mount Sherman in the Colorado Rockies.

Photograph © Spencer Swanger

When you are navigating and travelling in the mountains in winter, either hiking up varied terrain to approach an alpine route or climbing above timberline in the high mountains, it is important to find the safest terrain to cross as well as the most efficient line of travel to avoid dangerous conditions, particularly avalanches. If you want to have safe journeys across snow-covered terrain, it is paramount that you are comfortable with using an ice axe and wearing crampons, snowshoes, and Nordic or cross-country skis.

8 Safety Tips for Safe Snow Travel

Safe snow travel also requires lots of good judgment and common sense. Use mountain experience and intuition to help you stay safe in winter environments. Here are eight safety tips and pointers to help you navigate across the winter wonderland.

  1. Travel across tree-covered slopes with a gentle angle. When hiking in the mountains, plan ahead to cross safe terrain. If you are below tree-line, look for slopes that are densely forested as well as have gentle angles. The trees anchor the snowpack, making it less likely to avalanche when you cross it. Avoid steeply angled slopes which are prone to avalanche snow down them. An absence of trees on both slopes and in steep chutes indicates snow slopes that might regularly avalanche.

  2. Avoid traveling on or below slopes steeper than 30 degrees. Mountain slopes angled greater than 30 degrees are prime avalanche terrain-avoid them to live long and prosper. Carry a slope index to convert the contour lines on your map to exact slope angles. Also use common sense. If it looks too steep, it probably is too steep to safely cross.

  3. Climb up windward slopes and ridges. Windward slopes and ridges usually have less snowpack then leeward slopes, making them safe and easy travel paths. Most windward slopes in the United States are on the western side of mountains and ranges so westerly winds regularly scour slopes and blow snow onto leeward slopes.

  4. Avoid avalanche-prone leeward slopes. Leeward slopes, those on the opposite side of windward slopes, tend to accumulate drifts of wind-deposited snow. These loose drifts of snow are often deposited on top of slabs composed of old hard snow, creating the potential for disastrous slab avalanches. The loose snow also makes travel very difficult, sometimes requiring wading through deep unconsolidated drifts.

  5. Do not stand on snow cornices. Cornices, usually found on the leeward sides of ridges and crests, are an overhanging edge composed of wind-deposited snow. Cornices are extremely dangerous and unstable snow formations that can fracture and break under the weight of a passing climber. Do not stand or hike on top of a cornice or climb slopes below one since they can break away and avalanche down steep slopes, sweeping you away along with the snow. Cornices often break at a 45-degree angle so you don't have to be directly on top of one for it to break and bury you.

  6. Avoid rocks on the snow surface. Rocks, boulders, and small outcrops are sun traps, absorbing solar heat and melting snow that is nearby. The snow next to rocks is often shallower than the surrounding snowpack, which can trigger avalanches as well as cause you to posthole through the snow crust.

  7. Use caution crossing lakes and creeks. The surface of lakes is usually frozen, allowing safe travel if you hike across them. Keep an eye on the ice thickness and do not cross ice that is less than two inches thick. Also keep away from lake inlets and outlets where moving water decreases the thickness of the ice. It is advisable to keep a distance of 50 to 100 feet between hikers crossing a lake. It can be difficult to cross creeks in winter. Look for thick snow and ice bridges that span the moving water, letting you safely cross. Probe the bridge beforehand with a trekking pole to determine its structural integrity.
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