Open Your Eyes And Stay Alive: Using The Five Red Flags
by Jeremy Jones
Have you heard of the Five Red Flags? The red flags are simple visual clues that are a sign of potential avalanche danger. I use these observation techniques more than anything else to judge avalanche conditions in the backcountry.
It starts from the second I wake up. When I look out the window on a powder day I see my first red flag – new snow. If I see the trees outside sway in the wind now I have two red flags – new snow and wind transported snow. Seeing recent avalanche activity on the side of the road driving to the trailhead makes three red flags.
Watching shooting cracks break off of my ski tips skinning up or small slabs peel off my board as I am bootpacking makes four.
Before I even get to the trailhead I can use the red flags to make decsisons as to where I can safely go that day. As the red flags pile up my terrain plans continue to change. Digging a snow pit to analyze the snowpack is also valuable but it is these simple and quick observations that can be used over and over that are the most important.
Learn the Five Red Flags:
90% of human triggered avalanches happen during or within 24 hours after a storm. Give storm snow the utmost respect and assume high to extreme avy danger within 24 hours after a storm. Follow this rule and you will eliminate your risk of getting caught in an avalanche by 90%.
If you see signs of natural avalanches (crown lines, avy debris) this is a sign that avy danger should be taken very seriously. Take extra precaution if the natural avalanches have occurred at a similar elevation and on the same aspect as the slope you want to ride.
If you feel the slope collapse under your feet or hear whomping sounds this is a sign of unstable layers in the snowpack. Cracks may also shoot out from your skis or board as you skin or ride in fresh snow. These are all signs of dangerous snow layers.
No matter the starting temperature, any rapid warm up is dangerous because the snowpack does not have time to adjust to the temperature change. Take extra precaution on the first warm day after a storm cycle.
If the wind is strong enough to transport snow then the avalanche conditions can change from stable to dangerous without any new snow. Watch for blowing snow on high ridges and beware of wind loaded pockets at the top of faces and chutes.
1. Scene size up - Is it safe to rescue?
2. Pick a rescue leader.
3. Switch beacon to search mode.
4. Start beacon search.
5. Zig-zag beacon search.
6. Locate beacon within two meters - begin probe search.
7. Strike at 90°.
8. When probe strike, start shoveling.
9. Begin digging 1.5 times the burial depth downhill from the probe strike. Extract victim carefully.
10. Check A,B,C: Airway, Breathing Circulation (pulse).
11. Start CPR if need: 30:2 chest compress to rescue breath at rate of 100 compress per min.
12. Assess for traumatic injuries, keep victim warm and rescue by helicopter if possible.
Poles / Skins
Gloves / Goggles
Evaluate your group
Check avy report
Aspects to avoid
Red flags ?
The mountains are guilty until proven innocent. Celebrate backing down.
Pick your spots to hit 5th gear. The season is a marathon not a sprint.
The more critical the line the smaller the window it is safe to ride.
Give the mountains the respect and attention they deserve.
Leave the ego at the trail head.