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Spring Avalanche Problems and How to Avoid Them 

If you’re like us and you love sunshine and corn snow, spring skiing is a highlight of the year. On top of that, common spring avalanche dangers—wet loose and wet slab avalanches—are usually fairly predictable, which makes them easy to avoid if you know how to plan for them.

This predictability adds greatly to the joys of spring shredding, whether chill cruiser laps or full-on ski mountaineering are your cup of tea. Here are a few tips to keep in mind, although this is just a light primer and you should take a formal avalanche course or fresher to fill in any gaps in your knowledge.

What kinds of avalanches are common in the spring? 

Special avalanche hazards become common in the spring—namely, wet loose avalanches and wet slab avalanches. The key word in both is “wet,” because in the balmy spring sun, snow heats up and is no longer stably bonded to the snowpack layers underneath.

Wet avalanches seem to move at a slow pace, around 20 miles per hour, compared to other avalanches, which rush down the mountain at 60-80 miles per hour or more. But don’t let this fool you into thinking wet avalanches aren’t incredibly dangerous. They are, because they move with the force of a freight train, picking you up in a massively heavy churn that feels like wet cement. You get sucked in and dragged down, unable to traverse back out or even get up. The heavy, sticky force of it all can snap bones, tear ligaments, break skis, plow trees down, and bury you under the surface.

Now that we've brought the room down, let’s learn about these avalanches so we can avoid them. The goal is to get a street-cred-boosting goggle tan, not make evening news headlines.

Wet loose avalanches

As the snow surface warms up above freezing, it gets soggy and heavy. Think of it like pudding sitting on a plate. If you tilt that plate up to the steepness of a mountain slope, that pudding is going to slide right off. That’s about how wet loose avalanches happen. Slush starts to give way and slide off the mountainside, and things quickly escalate. The affected slush fans out into a wider and heavier avalanche that may have started small but can soon envelop a big swath of the mountain slope. It may even escalate further, triggering a slab avalanche that breaks down into deeper snow layers. Eek.

Wet slab avalanches

You may have heard of dry slab and storm slab avalanches. This is their springy cousin, the wet slab. Wet slabs happen when a cohesive layer of snow gets soaked from the heat of the sun melting it or from a rainstorm pouring onto it. Eventually, the water weakens the bond between the slab and the layer of snow beneath it. Then, calamity occurs and the whole slab rips off the mountainside, sweeping away anyone in its path.

Glide avalanches

While these aren’t exceptionally common here in the Wasatch, glide avalanches typically occur where the ground is very smooth (such as on a huge rock slab) and the entire snowpack starts sliding over the ground surface. Glide avalanches are scarily hard to predict—they’ll give you a few clues that they’re brewing under the surface, such as cracking away from the rest of the slope above. They can hang out like that for moments, days, or months—then suddenly rip out with massive force. A good rule of thumb is to avoid hanging out below glide cracks.

Don’t worry, be proactive!

Now that we’ve established that wet avalanches are monstrous jerks, we can talk about the great news—how to plan around them.

Wet avalanches happen when the snow has gotten warm and wet, right? So, travel across any slope steep enough to avalanche (that’s any slope above 30 degrees in steepness) early in the morning while the snow is frozen solid. This tip works well if the snow froze overnight, as it typically does in the mountains. But if it’s late spring or there’s a heat wave going on, the snow may not freeze overnight. (In that case, there isn’t a safe “frozen solid” time to travel on it.)

Ascend your ski route while the snow is solid, then enjoy a nice snack and beverage while you wait for the snow to warm up just enough to form pleasant corn-like conditions to descend. That’s the moment to hit it.

One amazing planning resource is, a mapping platform that lets you select checkboxes to view the mountainside’s slope angle as well as how early the sun will hit it in the morning. (You can see tons of other helpful bits of route-planning info there, too.) You can see if any slopes you’re traveling on (or under) are steep enough to slide at all, and if they are, how early they’ll start warming up in the sun. You can also check the local hourly weather forecast to see what the temperatures will be over the course of the morning. Plan your hiking time with a good buffer to get you to the top before things get warm and manky.

Red flags to be on the lookout for. 

Sometimes, even if you did your best to plan, the snow can start showing early signs of instability. This is your invitation from Mother Nature to get outta dodge before real problems arise.

You may see roller-ball pinwheels of snow shedding naturally off the slope, and the snow surface might start glistening with wetness. These are two huge signs that you may be running out of time to safely be on the slope. Rain is also a big snowpack destabilizer—if you get caught in a rogue storm, it can seriously saturate the slope quickly.

Monitor the terrain you’re traveling in, too. Are there big exposed rocks dotting the snow, absorbing the heat of the sun and radiating that heat into the surrounding snow? If so, they can become a weak link in the snowpack and may even be the starting point of a slide. And, are there any natural wet avalanches starting to take place anywhere in view? If those slopes are remotely similar to the aspect and angle of the slope you’re on, or if, God forbid, those slopes are above you, you should peace out quick.

Stay safe and have a blast. 

Common spring avalanche problems aren’t hard to spot or plan around, so with just a little bit of smarts, you should be in great shape to shred safely. Come home with a huge grin on your face and tales of high adventure, and we can’t wait to see the pics you post. To read more of our avalanche safety tips head here

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Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.

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