The soaring, snow-filled mountains in Southern California provide superb images for picture postcards.
And the same mountains provide just the right canvas, experts say, for dangerous avalanches following the record-breaking snowfall in February.
“We’re talking about a lot of snow at high elevation and steep terrain, and it’s the perfect ingredient for avalanches,” Claire Todd, a professor and the chair of geological sciences at Cal State San Bernardino, said Tuesday, Feb. 28.
Todd said the wave of snowstorms has created a second necessary element – layers of snow. The first layer develops a crust that the second layer can easily slide down on.
The third element required is a trigger, said Steve Mace, director and lead forecaster at the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center in Mammoth Lakes. Such a trigger could be skiers or snowboarders, wind, increased snowfall or, in the case of resorts that intentionally cause avalanches to reduce the risk, explosives.
“Anytime you get a significant snowstorm in the mountains, avalanches should be on your mind,” said Simon Trautman, a specialist at the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center in Bellingham, Washington. “If you are getting a lot of snow and a lot of wind, people should stay away from steep snow slopes.”
The exception, he said, would be if new snow falls on dirt and rock and the wind is not blowing hard. In those cases, the land will keep the snow in place. Avalanches usually occur within the first two days of a snowstorm, Trautman said.
More snow was expected in the mountains on Wednesday, the National Weather Service said. Snow levels could reach as low as 1,500 feet Wednesday morning, and areas in the San Bernardino Mountains were projected to receive one to two feet.
Already in the winter of 2022-2023, 13 people have died in avalanches nationwide, according to the website Avalanche.org. Snowmobilers lead the list with five deaths, followed by hikers and skiers with three deaths each and snowboarders with one. A 13th death was uncategorized.
There were 17 deaths nationwide in both 2021-2022 and 2020-2021, again led by snowmobilers.
Most avalanches happen on slopes that are steeper than 30 degrees, Mace said. That means they are not expected to happen at Bear Mountain Resort, said Justin Kanton, a spokesman for the three San Bernardino Mountains properties.
Most people who die from avalanches perish from asphyxiation. Others are killed when they collide with rocks or trees.
There are strategies for surviving avalanches. Experts recommend sticking your arm up so you can be detected and you can know which way is up, digging a pocket around your face, wearing equipment that can be inflated when you are caught in an avalanche, moving to the side of an avalanche and holding on to something, such as a tree.
But the best way to survive an avalanche, Mace said repeatedly, is to avoid being caught in one.
“It’s like being stuck in a washing machine,” he said.
There are telltale signs that an avalanche could be imminent Mace said: Heavy new rain or snow, blowing snow that can overload a mountainside, a drastic increase in temperatures, recent avalanche activities and cracks in, or collapse of, a snowpack.
That collapse, Mace said, sounds like “Womph.”
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