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DEC warns of avalanche risk on Adirondack slopes

Forest Ranger Ben Baldwin hikes through 3-foot deep snow on Algonquin Peak during a search for missing hikers in December 2016. Wright Peak can be seen in the background. (Photo provided by the state Department of Environmental Conservation)

Heavy snow can be exciting for skiers, snowboarders and winter mountaineers, but for those thinking of heading into the steep Adirondack backcountry, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a warning Friday: Be careful of avalanches.

DEC said snow was 3 to 5 feet by midday Friday on high-elevation slopes in the High Peaks region, and more snow was expected later that day. That new snow is piling up on top of layers formed by cycles of snow mixed with melting, raining and freezing. The weight of the new snow may cause it to slide off the lower layers as an avalanche.

The National Weather Service predicted at least a foot or two of new snow starting Thursday and especially Friday, when snow is expected to fall at a rate of 1 to 3 inches per hour — plus gusty winds creating whiteout conditions. Below that snow, ice accumulated overnight.

“The current snowstorm in the Adirondacks will result in snow depths and conditions ideal for winter outdoor recreational activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or simply enjoying the beauty of the mountains and forests,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a press release. “However, DEC cautions anyone planning to ski, board, or traverse backcountry slides and other avalanche-prone terrain in the High Peaks region or other high elevation mountains in the Adirondacks to be careful and be prepared for avalanche conditions.”

Avalanches are much more common on western mountains, but they do occasionally occur in the Adirondacks when conditions are ripe, especially involving thaws and big dumpings of fresh snow. This weekend’s forecast of temperatures above freezing and largely sunny skies could be just the mix to trigger an avalanche, DEC said.

The DEC noted that it isn’t just the High Peaks; Snowy Mountain in Hamilton County could have avalanche-prone terrain as well.

In 2000, one backcountry skier was killed and five injured in an avalanche on Wright Peak. On that same mountain in February 2018, an avalanche trapped a skier up to his waist in snow, but he escaped uninjured with companions’ help.

The DEC advises those traveling in avalanche-prone terrain to take the following precautions:

¯ Cross-country skiers and snowshoers should stay on trails and avoid steep slopes on summits.

¯ Know the terrain, weather and snow conditions.

¯ Dig multiple snow pits to conduct stability tests; do not rely on other people’s data.

¯ Practice safe route-finding and safe travel techniques.

¯ Never ski, board, or climb with someone above or below you – only one person on the slope at a time.

¯ Ski and ride near trees — not in the center of slides or other open areas.

¯ Always carry a shovel, probes, and a transceiver with fresh batteries.

¯ Ensure all members of the group know avalanche rescue techniques.

¯ Never travel alone.

¯ Notify someone about where you are going.

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