Avalanche Basics

More than 75% of the avalanche fatalities in Colorado are caused by people recreating in the backcountry.


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Types of Avalanche Problems

Release of dry unconsolidated snow. These avalanches typically occur within layers of soft snow near the surface of the snowpack. Loose-dry avalanches start at a point and entrain snow as they move downhill, forming a fan-shaped avalanche. Other names for loose-dry avalanches include point-release avalanches or sluffs. Loose-dry avalanches can trigger slab avalanches that break into deeper snow layers.

Loose Dry avalanches are usually relatively harmless to people. They can be hazardous if you are caught and carried into or over a terrain trap (e.g. gully, rocks, dense timber, cliff, crevasse) or down a long slope. Avoid traveling in or above terrain traps when Loose Dry avalanches are likely.

Release of a soft cohesive layer (a slab) of new snow that breaks within the storm snow or on the old snow surface. Storm-slab problems typically last between a few hours and few days. Storm-slabs that form over a persistent weak layer (surface hoar, depth hoar, or near-surface facets) may be termed Persistent Slabs or may develop into Persistent Slabs.

You can reduce your risk from Storm Slabs by waiting a day or two after a storm before venturing into steep terrain. Storm slabs are most dangerous on slopes with terrain traps, such as timber, gullies, over cliffs, or terrain features that make it difficult for a rider to escape off the side.

Release of a cohesive layer of snow (a slab) formed by the wind. Wind typically transports snow from the upwind sides of terrain features and deposits snow on the downwind side. Wind slabs are often smooth and rounded and sometimes sound hollow, and can range from soft to hard. Wind slabs that form over a persistent weak layer (surface hoar, depth hoar, or near-surface facets) may be termed Persistent Slabs or may develop into Persistent Slabs.

Wind Slabs form in specific areas, and are confined to lee and cross-loaded terrain features. They can be avoided by sticking to sheltered or wind-scoured areas.

Release of a cohesive layer of soft to hard snow (a slab) in the middle to upper snowpack, when the bond to an underlying persistent weak layer breaks. Persistent layers include: surface hoar, depth hoar, near-surface facets, or faceted snow. Persistent weak layers can continue to produce avalanches for days, weeks or even months, making them especially dangerous and tricky. As additional snow and wind events build a thicker slab on top of the persistent weak layer, this avalanche problem may develop into a Deep Persistent Slab.

The best ways to manage the risk from Persistent Slabs is to make conservative terrain choices. They can be triggered by light loads and weeks after the last storm. The slabs often propagate in surprising and unpredictable ways. This makes this problem difficult to predict and manage and requires a wide safety buffer to handle the uncertainty.

Release of a thick cohesive layer of hard snow (a slab), when the bond breaks between the slab and an underlying persistent weak layer, deep in the snowpack or near the ground. The most common persistent weak layers involved in deep, persistent slabs are depth hoar or facets surrounding a deeply buried crust. Deep Persistent Slabs are typically hard to trigger, are very destructive and dangerous due to the large mass of snow involved, and can persist for months once developed. They are often triggered from areas where the snow is shallow and weak, and are particularly difficult to forecast for and manage. They commonly develop when Persistent Slabs become more deeply buried over time.

Deep Persistent Slabs are destructive and deadly events that can take months to stabilize. You can trigger them from well down in the avalanche path, and after dozens of tracks have crossed the slope.

Release of wet unconsolidated snow or slush. These avalanches typically occur within layers of wet snow near the surface of the snowpack, but they may quickly gouge into lower snowpack layers. Like Loose Dry Avalanches, they start at a point and entrain snow as they move downhill, forming a fan-shaped avalanche. They generally move slowly, but can contain enough mass to cause significant damage to trees, cars or buildings. Other names for loose-wet avalanches include point-release avalanches or sluffs. Loose Wet avalanches can trigger slab avalanches that break into deeper snow layers.

Travel when the snow surface is colder and stronger. Plan your trips to avoid crossing on or under very steep slopes in the afternoon. Move to colder, shadier slopes once the snow surface turns slushly. Avoid steep, sunlit slopes above terrain traps, cliffs areas and long sustained steep pitches.

Release of a cohesive layer of snow (a slab) that is generally moist or wet when the flow of liquid water weakens the bond between the slab and the surface below (snow or ground). They often occur during prolonged warming events and/or rain-on-snow events. Wet Slabs can be very destructive.

Avoid terrain where and when you suspect Wet Slab avalanche activity. Give yourself a wide safety buffer to handle the uncertainty.

Cornice Fall is the release of an overhanging mass of snow that forms as the wind moves snow over a sharp terrain feature, such as a ridge, and deposits snow on the downwind (leeward) side. Cornices range in size from small wind lips of soft snow to large overhangs of hard snow that are 30 feet (10 meters) or taller. They can break off the terrain suddenly and pull back onto the ridge top and catch people by surprise even on the flat ground above the slope. Even small cornices can have enough mass to be destructive and deadly. Cornice Fall can entrain loose surface snow or trigger slab avalanches.

Cornices can never be trusted and avoiding them is necessary for safe backcountry travel. Stay well back from ridge line areas with cornices. They often overhang the ridge edge can be triggered remotely. Avoid areas underneath cornices. Even small Cornice Fall can trigger a larger avalanche and large Cornice Fall can easily crush a human. Periods of significant temperature warm-up are times to be particularly aware.

Release of the entire snow cover as a result of gliding over the ground. Glide avalanches can be composed of wet, moist, or almost entirely dry snow. They typically occur in very specific paths, where the slope is steep enough and the ground surface is relatively smooth. The are often proceeded by full depth cracks (glide cracks), though the time between the appearance of a crack and an avalanche can vary between seconds and months. Glide avalanches are unlikely to be triggered by a person, are nearly impossible to forecast, and thus pose a hazard that is extremely difficult to manage.

Predicting the release of Glide Avalanches is very challenging. Because Glide Avalanches only occur on very specific slopes, safe travel relies on identifying and avoiding those slopes. Glide cracks are a significant indicator, as are recent Glide Avalanches.

Source: CAIC

Avalanche Zones

The starting zone is the most volatile area of a slope, where unstable snow can fracture from the surrounding snow cover and begin to slide. Avalanches start on 30 degree slopes, and usually higher up on the slope, but can run onto lower angled terrain. However, given the right conditions, snow can fracture at any point on the slope.

The avalanche track is the path or channel that an avalanche follows as it goes downhill. Large vertical swaths of trees missing from a slope or chute-like clearings are often signs that large avalanches run frequently there, creating their own tracks. There may also be a large pile-up of snow and debris at the bottom of the slope, indicating that avalanches have run.

The runout zone is where the snow and debris finally come to a stop. Similarly, this is also the location of the deposition zone, where the snow and debris pile the highest.


Contributing Factors to Avalanche Events


Slope angle: Pay attention to slope angles when you're skiing or climbing, since avalanches occur most frequently on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. A clinometer on a compass or one specifically made for snowpack study can be a useful tool when traveling in the backcountry.

Slope aspect: During winter, a south–facing slope is more stable than a north–facing one since it has sun exposure to melt and condense the snow. The tempting north–facing slopes that hold all the best powder are also more likely to have unstable layers of ’depth hoar,’ the dry, icy snow that does not stick to the adjacent layers. Since these slopes don't have the benefit of sun to warm and compact the snow over the winter, they tend to be less stable than south–facing slopes. By spring and early summer, however, a south–facing slope can mean more serious melting, resulting in dangerous wet–snow slides. The warmer weather in these seasons often allows the snow on north–facing slopes to consolidate, thus making them safer.

Terrain hazards: Snowpack is likely to be unstable on convex slopes, cliff bands, boulders or trees where the snowpack breaks, wind–loaded lee slopes or beneath cornices. It's best to avoid bowls, cirques and depressions where snow could settle after a slide. Steep, narrow couloirs (or gullies) tend to collect snow and present a trap to hikers or skiers caught in them, often without side escape routes if their sides are steep.


Precipitation: Snow is least stable during or immediately after a snowfall or rainstorm. Large amounts of snow falling in a short time are a likely sign that the snowpack could slide. A heavy snowfall of especially wet or dense snow over lighter powder snow can set up layers of instability. Rain tends to percolate down through the snowpack and warm the deeper snow. It also provides lubrication between layers, making them more likely to slide.

Wind: Wind is another indicator of snow instability. Often, high winds pick up surface snow on one slope and deposit it on the other side of the ridge (a so–called ’wind slab’) where it is prone to slides. Pay attention to the intensity and direction of the wind throughout the day.

Temperature: Temperature fluctuations cause a number of problems with snowpack stability. Temperature differences between the ground and new layers of snow, between different layers of snow, or even between the air and the top layer of snow, can cause changes in snow crystal formation. A common crystal type that is particularly dangerous due to its inability to bond with other snow crystals is know as ’hoar.’ Hoar snow, also called ’sugar snow’ because of its similarity to granulated sugar, can be found at any depth or at multiple depths in a deep snowpack. Another common temperature problem, especially in the spring, is rapid warming of a slope, which can lead to wet–snow avalanches.


Snowstorms pile up one after the other all winter long. Wind blows snow off of some slopes and on to others. Temperature changes cause snow crystals to metamorphose. If the snow’s consistency remains constant, the snowpack is homogenous and stable. It’s when the snowpack develops different layers of different snow types that it becomes unstable and hazardous. It is extremely important for the backcountry traveler (especially on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees) to take the time to analyze the layers of the snowpack and test their stability.

Source: REI

Avalanche Problems Explained (Video)