In light of the recent avalanche incident on Mt. Baldy and in the interest of safety and Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR), we’re sharing the following general information about avalanche risks and travel in avalanche terrain.
ALPTRUTh is a mnemonic that can help you assess risk. If we have 3 or more of the factors present below, it should trigger a red flag in your brain, and prompt you to reconsider whether your travel plans and proposed route makes sense.
A: Avalanche – Have there been any recent avalanches within the last 48 hours? An avalanche that has just occurred on or near your route of travel is a SIGNIFICANT red flag that should NOT be ignored – you are in a high risk situation!
L: Loading – Has there been loading on the slope by snow, wind, or rain in the last 48 hours? Recent snowfall of >12″ will be a cause for concern.
P: Path – Will your planned travel path cross an obvious avalanche path? Will your uphill travel cross any potential avalanche paths? Going straight up Baldy Bowl places you directly on slopes of 30-45° which are considered prime for avalanches.
T: Terrain Trap – Is there a terrain trap including gullies, trees, cliffs, or other features that would make the situation worse if an avalanche were to occur? A slide into a terrain trap will increase the severity of potential injuries or increase the risk of burial even in a small avalanche.
R: Rating – What does today’s avalanche report indicate for the area? Is there a rating of “considerable” or higher? If yes, you will want to reconsider your plans. Go to SoCal Snow for up-to-date reports.
U: Unstable Snow – Have you heard any cracking, collapsing, “whoomping”? These are clear signs of instability and there were reports of cracking sounds before the slide in Baldy Bowl.
TH: Thaw – Has there been recent warming of the snow’s surface due to sun, rain, or air temperature? Warming can increase instability and avalanche risk. The Baldy Bowl gets significant sun and warms quickly. The snow “pinwheels” rolling down the hill are clues to instability.
The items above are out of your control and exist independently of your presence. You decision making should make full use of the objective factors notes, but also needs to account for human factors including:
F: Familiarity – We find comfort in the familiar and may feel safer with trails and routes we know, particularly if we’ve traveled a route dozens of times before, with nothing bad happening.
A: Acceptance – The desire to fit in is powerful and social media can often drive behavior. A desire to “fit in” can influence decision making.
C: Commitment – The desire to meet some objective (i.e., summit the mountain) can be a powerful driver even if the conditions may be questionable.
E: Expert Halo – Someone in your group may have high levels of knowledge or exude confidence that can influence the entire group. This may lead others to follow without raising concerns or questions.
T: Tracks/Scarcity – The idea that a particular resource is scarce (e.g., fresh powder or a snow-covered Mt. Baldy) and must be experienced before the snow is gone can cloud judgement.
S: Social Proof – Previous tracks leading up a slope or a line of other hikers ascending Baldy Bowl can give you a false sense of security (i.e., they are going up, it must be safe). Just because other people are on the same path, does not mean that it is safe and continuing to climb into or through a slope that has just avalanched is high risk.
The above mnemonic, FACETS, can help you recognize human factors that may impact your judgement. These concepts are part of a decision making and risk management framework that, combined with knowledge of weather, terrain, and snowpack, can help you make informed decisions when traveling in avalanche terrain.
The ability to respond to an avalanche accident is dependent on your skills and equipment since SAR resources may take a long time to reach your location and weather may limit helicopter access.
NONE of this is a substitute of obtaining expert training in developing your skills. We strongly recommend AIARE avalanche education programs and Wilderness First Aid courses as a way to build your knowledge and skills.