When heading for the hills, practice avalanche safety

Seventeen people have lost their lives this year in accidents related to avalanches. Although uncommon in the northeast, many winter sports enthusiasts will soon be heading west for the spring season.

An avalanche consists of large volumes of snow sliding down a mountain at high velocity. These sudden events result in destruction of roads, homes and lives. Trees, boulders and debris often become part of the descending flow.

Snow and ice will accumulate in layers as the winter season proceeds.

As the adherence of these layers weakens, the chances of an avalanche will increase.

Many factors play a role in loosening these layers. Natural causes include rapid warming, sudden precipitation and falling rocks. Artificial influences consist of skiers, snow boarders and snowmobile riders who may disrupt the snowpack. Animals may cause stress just by walking over a weakened area. Explosive use will certainly cause an avalanche in a vulnerable zone.

Avalanche risk can be calculated based on prevailing conditions and location. They are most commonly seen on back country ski trails that are not frequently used. Warnings are posted when the chances of an avalanche are high. Sometimes they will be intentionally triggered as a way of avoiding an unsuspected downfall.

Safety equipment and measures have proven to be effective:

• Pay close attention to warning signs and closed trails. Closing trails are not arbitrary decisions and there is most likely a reasonable degree of danger.

• An avalanche beacon will emit a signal to allow others to quickly find a victim and begin digging out.

• The avalanche balloon is a device that is designed to keep a person above the rising snow when deployed.

When planning to escape the unseasonable warmth of the northeast for a northwestern adventure, remember to invest in specialized safety equipment along with common sense.

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