Falling Powder: Understanding Avalanche Risks in Heliskiing


For people who want to enjoy the thrill of heliskiing deep in snow-covered mountains, avalanches represent an ever-present hazard. But through education, smart decision making and proper gear, risks can be managed. The good folk over at Andes Heliboarding say that understanding avalanche dynamics along with how to avoid, prepare for and respond to slides is essential for skiers seeking deep powder while also prioritizing safety.

How Avalanches Occur

Avalanches result when buried weak layers in the snowpack fail, causing the layers above to fracture and slide. Certain conditions create instability: Loading new snow atop older layers, wind-drifted snow, temperature fluctuations and rain. The angle of a slope also contributes, with steeper pitches more prone to slides.

Human-triggered avalanches most often occur when a skier’s weight is the last straw that exceeds the snowpack’s stability. Natural slides can release spontaneously when a weak layer collapses. Regardless of the trigger, understanding snow’s inner workings is key.

Reading Avalanche Terrain

Certain terrain features hint at increased slide risk. Slopes angled between 30 to 45 degrees pose the greatest hazard. Convex rollovers where angle subtly increases hide instabilities. Cliff bands above steep slopes load heavy snow onto questionable layers underneath. Dense trees help anchor snow in place while open slopes leave little to hold snowpack together.

Looking at surrounding terrain also provides clues. Evidence of recent avalanches, shooting cracks or collapsing are clear warnings. Overhead hazards like looming cornices or unsupported snow indicate danger. Chutes act like chimneys, channeling wind, and magnifying hazard. Defensible terrain analysis guides route selection.

Judging Conditions and Hazards

Beyond reading terrain, analyzing weather and snowpack factors provides key insight. Wind direction and loading affect stability. Heavy new snow or rain overload slopes. Sudden temperature spikes weaken snow bonds. Digging test pits can reveal weaknesses persistent in layers. Observing and recording conditions provides data to inform decisions.

Share observations with partners. Look for and discuss red flags. Keep an open, analytical mindset versus downplaying risks. Conservative choices in questionable conditions prevent disasters. If alarm bells ring, trust your judgement, and pick another line.

Carrying Proper Rescue Gear

While smart decisions reduce risk, carrying rescue gear is essential in avalanche terrain. Every member should have an avalanche beacon to aid burial searches, along with a collapsible probe to pinpoint the location. Carry a shovel both to dig pits for tests and excavate buried skiers if the worst occurs.

Avalanche airbags deployed when sliding can help keep a victim near the surface. Backcountry first aid supplies are mandatory for injuries. With the right gear and readiness, tragedy can be averted. Don’t let lack of preparedness compound an already perilous situation.

Developing Rescue Response Plans 

Fast response sharply improves avalanche survival odds. Discuss realistic rescue scenarios with partners beforehand. Designate meeting spots if separated before a slide. Confirm each member knows how to quickly search and probe. Respect avalanches’ destructive power rather than underestimating risks.

Repeatedly practice deploying beacons, strategic probing and shoveling hard, compacted snow. Physical fitness aids digging endurance. When managing risks, the human factor often determines outcomes. Ready yourself mentally and physically to give teammates their best chance.


For heliskiers, avalanches represent a constant peril, but through awareness and preparedness, risks are manageable. Study terrain and conditions to make informed decisions. Carry safety tools and know how to use them. Prepare for the worst while hoping for the best each run. Respect the mountain’s power, but let fear guide you toward safety rather than deterring you from powder. Find the balance between caution and reward that makes each run a cherished experience.