Avalanche danger

There is extensive knowledge, experience, and gear needed to safely travel on the PCT when snow covers the mountains. We cannot even scratch the surface of what you need to know here. Instead, we hope this page serves as a warning and motivates you to learn more about avalanche danger and keeping yourself out of harm’s way.

It’s important that you know your limitations

The danger of triggering an avalanche is real, and not just after fresh snow falls. Warming weather can trigger large avalanches as the snow gets heavier with moisture. Knowing how to identify avalanche terrain and staying safe is important. It may be necessary to seek an alternate route. Having strategies for keeping warm, dry and hydrated are key to safe backcountry travel. Do you have knowledge and tools to rescue someone buried in an avalanche?

Avalanche risk can be assessed from multiple variables. Which direction is the slope facing? How steep is the slope? How much fresh snow or windblown snow is there? What is the base layer? Current temperature, wind speed, and direction? What is the difference in temperature on the ground and at the top of the snow? How is the human element (you and your group) increasing the danger?

PCT hikers crossing a slope that’s steep enough to avalanche. Photo by Carolyn Burkhart

Being on or below a steep snow-covered slope means exposing yourself to potential avalanche risk. Avalanche danger is real. That’s why specific winter travel and avalanche preparedness skills are crucial. It’s highly unwise to unknowingly expose yourself to this hidden danger.

Avoid unnecessary hazards. Learn from friends, take an avalanche safety and rescue course and study up. Then practice safe snow traveling skills.

PCT-relevant Avalanche Centers

Some of the Pacific Crest Trail is covered by avalanche centers that do forecasting and steward conditions reports. They typically operate until April or May, which means they might stop forecasting before the danger is gone.

Spring avalanches are possible

Just because you feel that it’s hiking season, doesn’t mean that the avalanche risk is gone. Anytime you’re on a snow slope that’s steep enough, you’re in avalanche terrain. Typically in the spring, you need to worry most about wet slides rather than slab avalanches. A wet slide can easily sweep you off your feet and down a mountain. They can also bury you, especially if you get caught in a terrain trap. Cornices remain a danger as well. They can break above you. If you’re above one, stay far back from the edge as they can break remarkably far back. Lastly, be wary of spring snow-storms. Conditions can quickly return to a winter-like snowpack with significant slab avalanche potential.

Fall snow brings danger

The Northwest Avalanche Center says this about fall snow: “As this cold northern air is mixed progressively southward by fall storms, pronounced changes in the air temperatures over the Northwest are a normal result. These large temperature variations can result in rapid decreases in the snowpack stability in areas with sufficient snow to slide. Wet cool weather depositing substantial snowfall at the higher elevations followed by rapid warming still common in the fall can quickly produce significant avalanche danger. Remember that seemingly insignificant slides may be dangerous.”

Snow can be fun, beautiful and dangerous. Photo by Carolyn Burkhart.

Snow can be fun, beautiful and dangerous. Photo by Carolyn Burkhart.

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