Persistent Sketch

Backcountry Essentials: The art of backcountry in a continental snowpack

San Juan Sketch. PHOTO: Jeff Cricco

San Juan Sketch. PHOTO: Jeff Cricco

WORDS: Doug Krause

Doug Krause is a skier, guide, patroller, and forecaster from Silverton, Colorado. His favored locales include the Andes, Rockies, and Chugach Mountains.

Colorado has one of the highest densities anywhere of backcountry skiers in a continental snowpack. This snowpack is notorious for persistent avalanche hazard. No wonder Colorado often leads the nation in avalanche fatalities. What’s a pobrecito to do when persistent slabs and weak layers are the norm? One may rise to the challenge by scuttling about the edges of acceptable risk or accept the fact that certainty in a continental snowpack can only come with terrain incapable of producing an avalanche. Tough choice for a skier that likes 37 degree slopes and deep powder.

Intimate familiarity and consideration of terrain will stack the deck in your favor. Couple that with seasonal knowledge of local weather, snowpack, and avalanche path histories. Familiarity breeds complacency so be sure to infuse your history with current observations, tests, and a powerful dose of humility. Figure out what you don’t know and come up with a plan to get that information.

Successful continental backcountry skiers are obsessed with consequences and exposure. You probably won’t find them hiking straight up a line to gather snowpack information en route. The levels of uncertainty are too high. A snowpack with deep persistent instabilities is more capable of realizing the worst case scenario. Consequences are mitigated with travel and decision protocols that decrease vulnerability. You should be using those anyway.

High consequence decisions are based on cumulative information. Don’t leap into the pool to check the water. Dip a toe first or do some laps in the kiddie pool. The more information you have, the better. A high consequence line may require weeks or months or years of assessment before approach. Take reconnaissance very seriously when approaching new terrain. Have a Plan B and be ready to retreat.

Collaborative decision making will enhance the level of insight you can apply to a problem. Always talk it out with your partner and solicit the input of respected peers. Staying alive is not a competition. We’re in this together.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” I suspect Ralph never slavered over a big line but the advice could not be more apt. If you are not willing to wait for sufficient accumulation of knowledge and ideal circumstance the mountain will take you to task. Here in Silverton we seldom go skiing before the sun hits town.

  Last week’s backcountry tip: Why you should take your cell phone on a tour. (Hint: It’s not for taking selfies.)

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  • Arc2Arc

    The article highlights a large number of useful tips and insights on how to approach the decisions confronted in a typical day. The difficult part is obtaining sufficient experience set to ingrain the decision process and make it automatic, especially within the dynamic social interactions inherent in group travel. A suggestion to those of you in the trade; Design a multi day class around the content of this article, place small groups in terrain with consequences and coach them on the process. Akin to Wilderness First Responder. Slot the class above level 1 avie training so the focus is on the group interactions and decisions, not the equipment.

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