Backcountry Skiing, Snowboarding, Snowshoeing, Exploring, and Safety

Backcountry skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and other types of exploration are growing in popularity.  The solitude, breathtaking views and chance to make first tracks in the snow are prime reasons for adventure-seekers to head to remote mountain locations in the winter.  Those new to backcountry sports and exploration may not be aware of the dangers of avalanches in these regions.

Think avalanches only happen in the midwest?  Think again!  Mt. Katahdin frequently experiences serious avalanches during the winter months.  One particular area on Katahdin known for avalanches is near First Cathedral on the Cathedral Trail.  Two snowshoers lost their lives on the mountain in the ’80s due to an avalanche, and two others nearly did the year before in the same area.  Proper avalanche safety training and the proper gear is a must before visiting Mt. Katahdin or any other remote mountain destination in the winter.

FIRST:  Get Avalanche Safety Training

Avalanche Safety Course Providers in Maine:

  1. Acadia Mountain Guides, Bar Harbor
  2. Alpine Logic, various locations

Avalanche Safety Course Providers in nearby New Hampshire:

  1. Eastern Mountain Sports Schools
  2. White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation
  3. Northeast Mountaineering
  4. Synnott Mountain Guides 
  5. Chauvin Guides International
  6. International Mountain Climbing School 
  7. Mooney Mountain Guides

Get the Forecast

There are several places you can get the avalanche forecast, such as  This website offers forecasts as an assessment of the avalanche danger and snowpack conditions but is only a starting point.  It is up to you to make informed decisions on when, where and how you travel in regions prone to avalanches.  Check with park rangers if you’re exploring Baxter State Park for more information.

Bring Avalanche Gear

  1. Avalanche Transceiver– This is used to transmit and receive a signal to locate someone buried under snow.
  2. Probe– A probe is a long pole used to pinpoint the exact location of someone buried under snow.
  3. Shovel– The average avalanche burial is 4 feet!  Once an avalanche stops moving the debris quickly become hard and dense, especially the longer it sits.  A sturdy avalanche shovel is essential for both recovery and to assess the snowpack before heading into avalanche territory.
  4. Airbag Pack– These are highly recommended.  It is an inflatable avalanche airbag pack that can increase your chances of staying near the surface of an avalanche when you are in one when it is properly deployed.  Check out this YouTube video of freeskier Aymar Navarro who survived a massive avalanche and was quickly rescued because he was wearing an airbag pack.

Avalanche “Red Flags” to Look Out For

  1.  Recent Avalanches– If you see recent avalanches, this shows that the snowpack was recently unstable, and still could be.
  2. Look and Listen– Snow that has cracks in it, has collapsed, or “whump” or “drum-like” sounds are all signs of unstable and unsafe snow.
  3. Significant Weather– Recent heavy amounts of snowfall or rain can make the snowpack unstable for many days.
  4. Quick-Melting– Lots of rain, sun, or periods of time where the weather has been above freezing can increase avalanche danger.
  5. Wind Blown/Loaded Snow– Wind is a major factor in the recipe for an avalanche.  Avoid cornices (overhanging snow on a ridge that is formed by wind) and snow drifts on steep slopes.  These two features place extra weight in one place, which shows some areas have less snow and others have more, making the snowpack uneven and unsafe.
  6. Storm-Slabs or Persistent Slabs– These are thicker slabs formed from additional snowfall and/or wind-blown snow that is built on top of a persistent weak layer in the snowpack.  Persistent slabs can be triggered weeks after a storm or significant snowfall or windy conditions.

Learn How to Identify Avalanche Terrain

  1.  Slope Angle– Use an inclinometer to check the slope angle.  Most avalanches occur on slopes measuring 35 to 50 degrees, although they are possible on any slope steeper than 30 degrees.
  2. Connected Terrain– One section of a mountainside can experience an avalanche and trigger another avalanche on an adjoining slope that is connected lower by snow.  An avalanche triggered near the top of a mountain can easily flow to the terrain at the base, even with a slope of 30 degrees or less near the base.  The momentum, volume of snow, and the level of friction determine how far the avalanche will flow.
  3. Terrain Traps– These are land features that increase your chance of being in or injured by an avalanche.  They include being above cliffs (if the cliff drops), trees or rocks (where you can get pinned or trapped), or in a place where you can get washed into a gully, and also flat transitions, creeks, and lakes (known as “runout zones” where the avalanche flow is heading and will come to a rest).

Plan for Safety

Most of the time you can’t dig yourself out of an avalanche.  Traveling with a group makes it possible for you to collectively make decisions and are necessary if things go wrong.  As a group, create a plan that you will follow in the event of an avalanche.  Communicate frequently as you move along to assess the risk of danger.  If you are in an area with avalanche prone slopes, never expose more than one person at a time to the slope.  If something goes wrong, it becomes much easier for the rest of the group to assist one person than for the entire group to become trapped.  Stay out of the way of places where you will be exposed to an avalanche.  Remember avalanches usually flow into open-terrain runout zones.

If you are Caught in an Avalanche

If you can, deploy your airbag.  Try to get off the slap or out of the way of the slide.  Fight as hard as you can to keep your head above the surface, and as it slows down, try to bring your hands to your face.  Above all, stay calm and know that your group knows how to find you, and call out to them if possible.

If Someone Else is Caught in an Avalanche

Watch them closely and use a point of reference to remember the last place they were seen.  If you have service, call 911.  Determine if it is safe to begin searching for them without getting caught in another avalanche yourself.  Follow the avalanche plan you created and discussed before you headed out and begin searching for the victim.  Once you find them, treat them for any injuries they may have sustained, and especially for hypothermia.

Get the Training, the Gear, and Be Prepared

While the temptation of backcountry adventure and exploring remote locations few see in the winter is tempting, it comes with a high level of danger when in avalanche-prone locations.  If you do plan to go, make sure you first take an avalanche safety course, have the proper gear, are with a group, and have a plan.  Winter backcountry exploration is exciting, fun, and rewarding when done safely!


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