Safety Considerations for Skiing in the Backcountry
PC: Evan Green
I love skiing but I don't want to risk my life to do it. How can I stay safe while still enjoying the backcountry?
Skiing or riding in the backcountry is one of life’s great pleasures. However, we must warn you that it comes with a risk. Anytime you step outside of your ski areas boundary ropes, you are entering uncontrolled and therefore unpredictable terrain. A few factors- wind, temperature and radiation spread over innumerable terrain features in the backcountry make for infinite possibilities. No matter how long or well you know snow, you can never predict with complete certainty how a slope will behave. With that being said, there are many ways to lower the risk to an acceptable rate. We often consider the most dangerous part of our backcountry ski day, getting back on the highway to drive home.
Avalanche Safety Courses
AIARE/AAA Level I
In the backcountry winter environment, not only are we dealing with navigational and weather-related challenges, but we are also dealing with snow instability and avalanche-related concerns. While there is almost always a safe place to ski in even the highest of avalanche danger, the best approach is to arm yourself with both the knowledge and experience necessary to make good decisions in the mountains.
The best place to start is with an avalanche course which are offered by local guide services around the country. These three day courses start in the classroom with the basics of snow science including how layers develop within the snowpack, and how as backcountry users we can look for clues in the snow throughout the season to help us make safe decisions. With that being said- do not expect to feel totally comfortable or qualified after taking your Level I. These courses have been equated to trying to drink water through a firehose. Use your level I as a springboard, and then go into the backcountry with an experienced partner.
Courses are certified by one of two organizations: AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) and AAA (American Avalanche Association). These two groups don’t diverge much from a common curriculum so if your favorite guide service is teaching one or the other, you shouldn’t be concerned with which organization they are affiliated. In addition to guide services, check with local avalanche centers, community colleges, and outdoor education organizations for more opportunities.
If you and any of your ski partners are traveling in uncontrolled avalanche terrain, you should get the knowledge and get the gear that will keep you safe. Don’t rely on one member of your group to take a course and become group leader. Travel in the backcountry is a democratic process and all involved should share in the decision making.
Avalanche Rescue Course
Another great course we recommend is the Avalanche Rescue Course. This one day training focuses solely on learning to use your avalanche rescue gear efficiently. You will learn your gear and how to act in an emergency situation, and then you’ll get to practice your skills across a variety of single and multi-burial situations. While this course doesn’t teach you the skills to evaluate snow and move through avalanche terrain safely- it does make you a qualified backcountry partner. When you get caught in a slide, its your partner that is responsible for your life. If you spend the day to complete an Avalanche Rescue course, we promise it will be much easier to find an experienced backcountry skier to take you into avalanche terrain and teach you the skills to stay safe.
Backcountry Safety Gear Basics
There are three pieces of gear that are required for all backcountry travel (and a whole other host of gear that we recommend- but that’s the topic for another blog). Repeat it like a mantra: beacon, shovel, probe! In short, the beacon allows you to locate the buried body, the probe allows you to find the body in the snow, and the shovel digs it out. If this sounds grave it’s because it is, which should be all the more motivation to go get educated!
Beacons (also known as avalanche transceivers) are how you search or can be searched for by your ski partners if you are unfortunate enough to have been buried in an avalanche. All available brands on the market today utilize the same frequency, so don’t be concerned if your ski partner has a brand different from yours. Just be concerned that they know how to use it and practice with it regularly!
When you head out from your car or enter into uncontrolled terrain where avalanches are possible, you’ll turn your beacon to ‘transmit.’ At this point, you’ll be sending a signal until you get back to safety and turn your beacon off. As the popular refrain says: “On at the car, off at the bar!” In the event of an avalanche, members of the group that were not caught in the slide will turn their beacons to search (both to initiate a search and also to not confuse the search by continuing to transmit). There are some great how-to videos around the internet on search grid patterns and ways to effectively move from a wide to narrow search to eventually pinpointing your subject. The trick to all of these skills is to practice. Often. And more than once a season. Preferably with your backcountry partners. You really can’t practice beacon searches too often. Check with your local ski patrol and see if they have a beacon park set up at your favorite resort, then set aside an hour once a month to practice your skills!
Once you have performed your fine search and pinpointed the lowest distance point on your beacon, you’ll assemble your probe pole and shovel and move to the next portion of your search. A probe pole is a thin, collapsible pole, usually 6-8 feet long, that allows you to confirm the exact position of your ski partner in the snow. Practice with your probe pole as well, so you can tell the difference between what a rock feels like, what the frozen ground feels like, and what your buddy’s thigh or ski boot feels like beneath your probe. Once you have what you believe is a probe strike of your subject, leave the probe in place! That’s going to be your reference point for the shoveling that’s to come.
The final and most time-consuming piece of this rescue scenario is shoveling. As you’ll learn in your avalanche course, there is a right and a wrong way to shovel. The key is to be efficient while also making headway. Do not dig that hole straight down the probe! Step back down hill a few steps and dig horizontally towards your probe pole. This accomplishes two goals: one you’re not having to throw snow out of a narrow hole (which is usually refilling as you go), and two you’re creating a level platform for your ski partner to recover on (or where you can provide medical treatment, if necessary). In the industry, we call this strategic shoveling, and it has proven to be the most successful way to extricate a buried backcountry traveler.
Again, all of this information is intended to pique your interest and when the time is right we hope you will take the time with your ski partners to attend a formal Level I or Avalanche Rescue Course, where you’ll start to build your own skill and knowledge base!
Group skiing low angled pow with friends: one of lifes great pleasures! (PC: Lauren Danilek)
Friends on a Powder Day: Ski Partners are Critical
We go for mountain bike rides alone, we go for trail runs alone, we even hike alone, so why do we need to ski with a partner or two in the backcountry? It’s simple, if you get caught and buried in an avalanche, your partners are your best and only chance for help. The concept of ‘no friends on a powder day’ goes out the window when we leave the ski area boundaries and head into avalanche terrain. As you’ll learn in your Avalanche Level 1 course, the first 15 minutes following an avalanche are the most critical for survival. If a skier is completely buried, they are unlikely to survive past 15 minutes. And without the proper gear and a capable ski partner, you’re a goner if you have to wait for your local Search and Rescue team to arrive, which would not be until many hours later.
Let’s even take it down a notch. Even a simple gear malfunction, a broken binding, a moderately twisted knee, or an otherwise harmless tree well. All of these could turn into serious events if you don’t have someone to help you get back to safety, or even to go for help.
The brighter side of ski partners is that you get to share in an amazing experience with someone that you enjoy spending time with. The memories made in that heinous bootpack where every step is a knee-punch, kick, step will be fodder for storytelling for years to come. Selfies are cool, but even just bringing your buddy along to take rad ski photos is worthy, too!
So what about when you rip your toe piece out of your ski and it’s 4pm in January and daylight is vanishing? Did you bring that extra ski strap to secure your foot to the ski? Or are you stuck postholing for 3 miles back to the trailhead? Did you bring enough layers to stay warm? Not to mention that you really need someone to remind you of each poor decision you made this morning that put you in this predicament in the first place? Ski partners are the lifeblood, literally and figuratively, of the backcountry touring experience. So develop those relationships, build those bonds, learn those skills together, and most importantly, don’t leave home without one!
It’s April and it hasn’t snowed in a week. Your local avalanche forecaster is running the danger at moderate due to afternoon warming and the threat of late-day wet slides. Your ski partners are all vacationing in the desert, but you still want to ski. What’s a responsible backcountry skier to do? There are times when it’s not only possible but totally acceptable to head out into the backcountry on a solo mission. In this age of technology, we have the benefit of satellite communicators that allow for messages to be sent even when there’s no cell service, but even in the absence of such devices, there are ways to mitigate risk and still get out for some turns
Certainly, the familiarity of your usual routes is helpful for the solo mission. You know how long you’ll be out, you know where the skin track is, you know where the snowbridge is to cross the creek on the exit… so make the decisions that put luck on your side! Of course, and it should go without saying, be sure to let a couple of friends know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. As simple as this is, don’t be that backcountry user that is so unpredictable that even search and rescue can’t find your car at the obvious trailheads.
The solo backcountry experience is a very meditative one. Put the latest episode of the Totally Deep podcast on your phone (with earbuds in just one ear please, so you can still hear those potential concerns throughout your tour), and zone out as you knock out the vert on your way to that familiar ridgeline. You know that the eastern aspects have been warming up around 10am, so you set your pace to hit the transition at just the right time. Below you lies 1500’ vert of recycled powder transitioning to corn. You know where the hazards lie under the snow, where those shallow spots and shark fins were from earlier in the season. You’re making good decisions and stacking the deck in your favor. And even better if you choose locations where you know you’ll have cell service in case something goes awry.
There’s a time and a place to tackle those solo missions. We’ve all been out there a little too long, a little too late, or when things didn’t go just as planned. If you’re going out alone, keep that in mind and remember rule #1, live to ski another day!
When you look into the root causes of avalanche accidents, more often times than not it is linked to the decision making process, and more importantly the group dynamics in a backcountry ski touring setting. This is what we refer to as heuristics. Whether it’s putting too much focus on one aspect of a complex avalanche problem, feeling that there is ‘safety in numbers’ or that one member of your group knows best- these human errors always decrease the effectiveness of decision making in a backcountry scenario.
At some point we will each be the least experienced member of a group. Do we speak up when we see recent avalanche activity? Do we share our observations with the group, even though they all should have seen these signals themselves? Do we express discomfort with a slope or an aspect or a line choice when the rest of the group is gung-ho on checking that box?
We say yes! Ski touring has always been a democratic process. Regardless of experience level, everyone shares in the decision making about route choices and whether or not they are comfortable with going at all. Share those concerns, voice those opinions, communicate what you’re seeing! You may not turn the whole group around, but you can confirm that everyone saw the ‘obvious’ natural windslab slide on the same aspect as your objective. At best, you enlightened your ski partners to something they hadn’t seen. At worst, you are showing that you are paying attention to the surroundings and are a worthy and capable ski partner. A good member of any group is a communicative one!
Heuristics remain one of the most complex and dangerous problems to overcome when navigating through avalanche terrain. Oftentimes, we don’t even know we are participants in this problem until it’s too late. This is why it’s not only important to over communicate throughout your tour (especially with new partners), but it’s important to review the decisions of the day- preferably with a beer in hand. When were we most in danger of triggering a slide? Did our decisions align with our tour plan? What would we do differently next time? As always, be sure to take a course or go out with a hired guide to learn more about traveling safely through avalanche terrain.
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