How to read the avalanche report.
If you ever ski the backcountry, one of the best things you can do is read the avalanche report from your local avalanche center every day—not just on the days you go out touring. (Although it’s mandatory on those days!) Here in Utah, our local avalanche center posts its digital report online by 7am, and a recorded phone version is usually available on their hotline an hour or so before.
Within the avalanche report, you’ll find not only valuable information about what’s safe, what isn’t, and how it’s trending over time—you’ll also get insightful clues about where the softest snow is. Here in the Wasatch, we also get a high volume of user-submitted observations that add even more beta on what’s happening with the snow, thanks to the large number of backcountry skiers cruising around and posting their reports.
When it’s time to plan a tour of your own, you can look at the avalanche report and recent observations to compile an ascent route and descent route that will be as safe as possible. Local avalanche centers like the Utah Avalanche Center use clear, easy-to-follow graphics and explain the day’s hazards in layman’s terms, so you needn’t have a snow science degree to understand it.
How to read the report:
The “Danger Rose”:
This is one of the most valuable at-a-glance elements of the avalanche report. It makes it easy to visualize which slopes will be safer (or more dangerous) than others. Imagine the graphic is a mountain peak. The various tiers of elevation and aspects (i.e. which direction the slope is facing) are all color-coded according to the expected avalanche danger. The color-coding key at the bottom of the graphic explains that green means Low, yellow means Moderate, orange means Considerable, red means High, and black means Extreme (the avalanche equivalent of a pirate flag’s skull and crossbones).
In the example here, Considerable danger is found on northwest, north, northeast, and east-facing slopes above 8,000 feet. Everywhere else is rated Moderate.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can simply tour on the slopes with the lower danger rating. Instead, keep in mind that even if the danger on a particular slope aspect and elevation is lower than it is somewhere else, there still is danger and it’s completely possible to set off a slide. You still need to keep your wits about you and use everything you’ve learned in your avalanche safety courses to make informed decisions. But at least, thanks to the Danger Rose, you know roughly how dangerous some slopes and elevations are, and how they compare to others.
Based on this Danger Rose, you might choose to ski something west-facing or south-facing, and since Moderate danger still exists, you might choose additional ways to mitigate your risk even more, such as sticking to low-angle terrain, which further reduces your risk.
Bust out your handy topographic map and compare it to the day’s Danger Rose. Looking at the two side-by-side, you can examine the slopes you’d like to skin up and ski down, making a route plan that avoids any terrain in high-danger zones. (In this instance, for example, you’d consider avoiding a skin track that crosses a steep north-facing slope that sits right at 9,000 feet—you’d make sure there’s a way to get to your handy-dandy west-facing ski descent without exposing yourself to this elevated-risk section.)
Remember, it’s easy to fall into psychological traps in assessing risk. In fact, a majority number of avalanche fatalities occur when the danger is Considerable but not High, because people get lulled into a false sense of security since it isn’t High. Orange is “medium,” right? … Wrong. Orange will still get ya good if you traipse around in ill-advised places.
The “Special Announcements” section:
Next, you’ll see any important or time-sensitive announcements about planned road closures, ski area-related avalanche closures, or events you may want to know about.
The Weather and Snow:
It’s nice to learn about the day’s weather through the lens of how it relates to backcountry skiing. You’ll learn about the anticipated temperatures, what the weather did the previous day and overnight, and how it’s affected the snow conditions. As of the moment of writing this article, much of the Wasatch has been blasted by harsh winds that pummeled the snow surface into a tragic mix of boilerplate crust and dangerous hard slabs. Fortunately, the day’s avalanche report mentions this and explains that the best riding conditions are found in sheltered, shaded terrain that didn’t get ravaged by the east winds.
The day’s weather report will call out any changes in weather that are anticipated to affect the day’s avalanche hazards. For instance, if rapid warming is anticipated in the afternoon, that’s a good clue to plan your tour to wrap before the wet slabs and roller balls begin their parade of doom.
You can also plan your layers based on the mountain temperatures and winds—if a chilly gale is expected, you’ll sure be glad you stashed a hardshell in your pack to hold it at bay.
Recent avalanches are an incredibly helpful indicator of what else is likely to slide. So pay attention to this list! The forecast will link to full write-ups of all recent slides, which indicate exactly where, at what elevation, and at what slope angle the slides occurred. Often there are photographs and details like how deep the avalanche was, and what set it off.
As an example, if you see report after report about north-facing slopes above 35 degrees breaking at an icky persistent weak layer that’s lurking two feet below the surface … that’s a mighty helpful indicator that you should avoid any similar slopes till the snowpack heals or gets washed out and refreshed.
Current Avalanche Problems:
Now, the wonderfully insightful humans at the avalanche center will list the specific avalanche problems you’re most likely to encounter today. Not only will they list them, but they’ll diagram what the problem looks like, which aspects and elevations where you might see it, how likely it is to set off, and just how big it could rip.
In this example, the issue of biggest concern is the persistent weak layer dogging the Wasatch snowpack at the moment. While, as the diagram states, it’s not highly likely to let loose at the moment, it’s certainly a possibility, and the consequences are well worth noting.
As you look at the current avalanche problems, you can think about how they’re likely to change as the weather changes and as new storms dump more snow on top of them. The report will help explain what’s trending and what you need to know about it.
The daily avalanche report sets you up for success with better informed route planning decisions. You should keep it in mind—or even screen shot it and carry it with you—throughout the day and compare the report to what you’re seeing out there. Stick your hand and poles in the snow so you can feel what the report forecasted. Dig a pit in a safe spot and have a look at the layers the report mentioned.
You can very often confirm or replicate nearly everything the report talks about. And if you find anything surprising or interesting, you can contribute your very own Observation to the avalanche center’s web page to let people know what you saw. The process is very democratic and you needn’t be an expert to submit an observation. Just follow the instructions and fill in the answers with the best detail you can. Whether you got an interesting snow pit test result, or you observed whoomphing and cracking, you came across an avalanche path, or you simply discovered a nice sheltered stash of snow, it’s great to get the word out there.
Happy touring—and remember if you need any avalanche safety gear, such as beacons, probes, shovels, saws, slope inclinometers, or the like, check Geartrade and shop UnNew first.
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.