Cornices: What you should know before traveling into the backcountry

Mountain ridgelines are perfect resting places for backcountry travelers and spring skiers. They provide sweeping views and oftentimes ease of travel. However, ridgelines provide their own hazards: cornices. 

Cornices are a “mass of snow deposited by the wind, often overhanging, and usually near a sharp terrain break such as a ridge.” Over the long and stormy winter season, cornices build up and can overhang leeward slopes. During spring warm up, these snow/ice masses weaken, and may eventually break off via a natural or a human-triggered event. For backcountry users, this presents two major risks: being below a cornice when it breaks free, or standing atop a cornice when it releases.

 Know your terrain, and never travel below or atop cornices during warming trends. Early in the morning is typically a safer time to cross this hazardous terrain if you must.

Backcountry skiers on Mt Cashmere, Washington

Photo: Backcountry skiers on Mt Cashmere, Washington.  C. Thompson