Advanced Backcountry Ski Travel
The straight dope on backcountry ski travel and gearby Dena Foltz
My phone rang at 6 a.m. startling me out of a deep sleep. No one calls at 6 a.m. unless it is an emergency. “We’ve got a mission,” it was the backcountry search and rescue dispatcher. As I cleared the dust from my eyes and rounded up my rescue gear, I processed the information the dispatcher had given me. A skier had ventured out of bounds yesterday and was reported missing late last night. The missing person was considered to be an expert skier with backcountry experience. The reality of the situation played in my head. What kind of trouble could an experienced backcountry traveler get himself into? It seems that an experienced skier would know how to avoid trouble.
Risk Taking 101 Experience doesn’t make you immune to dangers in the backcountry, if anything the more experienced you become the more dangers you will face. If you really thought about all the dangers you faced, you’d never go out. For most people, the adrenaline rush that comes while making turns down a big, fat, untracked powder field or touring through an area where you feel like the only person on Earth is worth all the risks.
Becoming more experienced means taking more responsibility for assessing the risks involved with backcountry travel and being prepared to deal with such decisions. It means becoming more educated and aware. It also means more turns, more terrain and more adventure than you ever dreamed of.
Before You Go Becoming an experienced backcountry traveler means taking more responsibility for the hazard evaluation process. Know what hazards exist in the area you will be traveling and be prepared to make responsible decisions. Before you head out, check local weather conditions, so you know what you are in for. Sudden storms can wreak havoc on a backcountry tour. Also, check your local avalanche conditions. Backcountry.com provides a link on their home page to avalanche conditions almost anywhere in the world. It doesn’t get any easier than that.Avalanche Safety
Avalanche forecasts are generalized over a large area and each slope you ski will need to be evaluated separately. Snow morphology is a science and it takes more than just a short article to cover the basics, so I suggest you pick up a book or, better yet, seek out an avalanche course taught by an experienced professional.Determine Slope Stability
Dig a pit to identify weak layers in the snowpack and evaluate its stability. Know What to look for and how to process the information you find. In addition to the basic avalanche safety gear--beacon, probe, shovel—advanced backcountry travelers will want to carry additional gear to help them evaluate snowpack. Shovels that include a snow saw and snow study kits are available from Backcountry.com. Such tools are invaluable when it comes to predicting the safety of a slope.Terrain Features
Learn about the significance of terrain, slope angle, slope aspect, wind direction, snowfall history in relation to avalanche conditions. Avalanches can occur on slopes between 25 and 60 degrees. Most activity occurs on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees.Route of Travel
It is important to choose a safe route of travel. Avalanches can occur anytime extra weight is applied to an unstable slope—this includes uphill travel or just traversing a slope. Know how to identify avalanche terrain and cross it safely, one person at a time. A safe skin track skirts avalanche terrain. Choose a ridge or safe slope that ascends through treed terrain (trees help anchor unstable snow). While approaching and ascending, pay attention to signs of avalanche activity around you. Do you see signs of avalanches in the area? Listen for the “whoomping” sound that indicates the snowpack has collapsed and will likely slide.Surviving a Slide
Know what to do if you are caught in a slide. Fight like crazy, swim, try to get to the surface and once the slide stops and you are buried, relax. If your group was skiing the slope one person at a time and was keeping an eye on you as the slide started, you can take comfort in the fact that you have reliable, well trained, reliable partners who are coming to dig you out. The best way to survive an avalanche is not to get in one in the first place.Route Finding
As far as the lost skier goes, he skied a line that took him into an unknown basin. He relied on his sense of direction to get him out of the basin and back to the ski area. Unfortunately, a compass and a map would have served him better. It is easy to get lost, especially when you become engrossed in the field of waist-deep powder that lies “just a little farther”. Back up your sense of direction with a map and compass or GPS. Travel with others who have been there before or by getting first-hand information from someone who has recently traveled that area.Gear
As your backcountry experiences get bigger and better, so will your quiver of gear. The further out you venture, the more prepared you need to be. Aside from having all the backcountry basics such as Telemark, Alpine Touring, or a Split Board set up, skins or snowshoes, avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and a backpack designed to carry all that gear, you need to start carrying tools that allow you to face more serious situations.Emergency Supplies
That includes carrying a medical kit and emergency supplies. There is an array of handy emergency kits out there that require almost no thought and will help you cope with whatever unexpected events may come up. The best packable emergency kits include an emergency blanket, candles, waterproof matches, compass, first-aid kit, and whistle. And don’t forget the duct tape, by far one of the most useful inventions ever.
The lost skier had the foresight to include in his pack some essentials that probably saved his life during his overnight stay in the mountains. Even if you only plan on going for a short jaunt, always carry extra food, water and layers. It is just a good habit to get into and you can’t predict accidents.Group Dynamics
Choose your partners wisely and know the experience level of everyone in your group. Not only do you want to travel with people who are strong skiers and skilled in avalanche rescue. Choose partners whose level of risk taking is in line with your own. Group dynamics can make or break a backcountry trip. Ski within your limits and the limits of the other members of your group.Use Your Head
The number of rescues I get called out on that could have been averted simply by the use of good judgment and of common sense surprises me. With a little training and good judgment you’ll be experiencing spectacular backcountry turns for many years to come. And I won’t have to wake up at 6 a.m. to come find you.Backcountry.com has all the gear you need for backcountry adventure; all you need to provide is the energy and the terrain.