A new danger rating system is appearing in avalanche forecasting this winter, making North America, New Zealand, and Europe in sync with the same system. Skiers and snowboarders that make use of the backcountry, including sidecountry terrain at resorts, will see their avalanche forecasting organizations using the new scale this winter.

The new avalanche danger rating uses a five level scale with color-coded icons to indicate the level of danger. It was produced by a joint U.S. and Canadian committee and published this fall. "The Canadians invented the diamond icons, which were modified by the Swiss," Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center and author of Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain, told OnTheSnow. "The new system is being standardized internationally this year with English-speaking countries. It also reworded the text of what each level means."

Additions to the scale include new descriptions matched with each icon. A new travel advice section speaks to the avalanche danger assessment skills needed for each level. A new description of the potential avalanche size and distribution clarifies what conditions to expect. The likelihood of avalanches for each of the five levels is also included.

Eleven skiers or snowboarders died last winter in avalanches in the U.S. Most fatalities occur when avalanches are rated considerable, the third out of five levels on the new scale. Tremper noted that the "considerable" level poses the most difficulty for users of the scale. "A lot of people misunderstand what 'considerable' means," he said. "We're trying to get away from trigger words and use level 1-5 instead."

A tutorial on the new avalanche danger ratings, which is available on the Utah Avalanche Center Web site, clarifies that the expert avalanche training and skills are needed for the "considerable" level. Basic avalanche skills are required for levels one and two, while levels four and five say, "Don't go."

Many resorts in the Western U.S. and Canada have open boundary policies where skiers can exit from gates into the backcountry. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee Resort, Whitefish Mountain Resort, Bridger Bowl, Mammoth Mountain, Kirkwood Mountain Resort, Sugar Bowl Resort, Crystal Mountain, Sun Valley Resort as well as resorts in Colorado and Utah allow using chairlifts to gain altitude and then exiting gates into unpatrolled and uncontrolled backcountry. Many Canadian resorts, such as Whistler Blackcomb, Revelstoke Mountain Resort, and Whitewater Ski Area, permit access to backcountry, too.

Skiers and snowboarders heading out of bounds at resorts need to be equipped with beacons, probes, shovels, buddies, and check local conditions before they go. Contact local avalanche forecasting organizations for up-to-date assessments of the snowpack.

More information: US avalanche forecasting organizations, Canadian avalanche forecasting, new danger rating tutorial.