Powder 8s: Backcountry Basics

For veterans, a reminder. For newbies, an important list to know before you trek into the backcountry.

Boots are buckled, gear is dialed, you are familiarized with where wind loading occurred last night, your ski partner has just radioed up that you are good to ski. Pull your goggles over your eyes, take a deep breath, and submerge into the powder you’ve been planning many hours to reach. Here are eight tips to a safer backcountry experience:

1. Check the local avalanche and weather report before you go

You’ve heard it before: bookmark your local avalanche center forecast page and read it before you head out for fresh tracks. But really, it goes beyond just that. “Read the forecast everyday, it will give you a leg up on the season snowpack history and allow you to understand what layers are (or may be) problematic or behaving poorly,” says Jake Hutchinson, lead instructor for the American Avalanche Institute. Additionally, bookmark and understand how to read your local weather stations. Before you head out, look for new snow totals, water content, wind speed, and wind direction. These factors all play a role in how you manage decision-making and travel plans for the day ahead.

2. Take an avalanche education course, start with Level I or Progress Your Knowledge with a Level II

Avalanche education courses are structured to provide students the necessary knowledge and hands-on skillset to safely travel in the backcountry. Start with the fundamental Level I course and progress throughout your ski career. “Courses have changed significantly over the past decade, take another Level I course if it’s been awhile,” says Billy Rankin, snow safety director for Eleven Experience. “Learning fundamental avalanche 101 skills (recognizing avalanche terrain and how the weather and snowpack produce dangerous avalanche conditions) is key, but more importantly, today’s classes look at human factors and how emotions and group dynamics can lead to poor decision making.” Rankin finishes with this: “Instead of learning all the right answers, you’ll learn the right questions to ask and how to use a strategic framework for safe decision making in the backcountry.” Check out AIARE, American Avalanche Association, and American Avalanche Institute’s upcoming courses in your area.

3. Practice beacon searches and companion rescue

Practice as often as you can. In the snow and wind, under a blue sky, when it’s cold, on your way up the skin track, and during après. For the ultimate test, do a beacon search buzzed up and at night to simulate disorientation. If you can conquer drunk beacon searching, you deserve another beer. Brian Lazar, deputy director at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, encourages backcountry travelers to practice companion rescue even more than beacon searching alone. “Beacon searching is only one component of companion rescue and it has become one of the easiest parts of a rescue in most accidents that involve only one buried person. I would encourage people to also practice how they would organize their search team and practice probing and strategic shoveling with that team,” says Lazar. The more you practice each aspect of an avalanche rescue, the better off you’ll be if you ever need to put them to use.

4. Throw down for an airbag backpack

Sure, they are a pretty penny, but they’ve been proven to increase the odds of surviving an avalanche. Dr. Pascal Haegeli studied avalanche airbag effectiveness and concluded that inflated airbags can help reduce mortality by around 11 percent (from 22 percent to 11 percent) and a strong percentage of fatalities can be saved with inflating and airbag pack when in an avalanche. Getting an airbag pack doesn’t eliminate the need for a beacon that you know how to use, a shovel, and a probe.

5. Start a snow study kit and channel your inner avalanche forecaster

You’ve taken an Avalanche Level I class, you’ve read the avalanche and weather report, you know how to use your equipment, what’s next? Jake Hutchinson never leaves home without his snow study kit. Replicate his with a snow saw, 10-foot piece of two-millimeter cord, and a slope meter (note: some beacons have this technology built in). Hutchinson says, “The more you dig, poke, prod, and test the snow, the more you will begin to understand what you’re dealing with. Look for patterns and distributions and start thinking like an avalanche forecaster. Your local avalanche center gives you a great foundation, but they can’t identify all problems in every nook and cranny.” After you dig a pit, share what you see on the Avanet app.

6. Have a plan

Prior to embarking on your day, make a plan, know where you are going, and with who. Jake Hutchinson urges skiers to have an opinion on snow stability and avalanche danger before venturing into the mountains and keep an open mind. “If conditions aren’t what you expected or the forecast isn’t correct, be ready and willing to change your opinion as new information is gathered. Sometimes turning around is the best thing you can do,” says Hutchinson.

“Choose appropriate terrain for the avalanche danger and the partners you’re skiing with on any given day. Terrain that is appropriate one day may not be appropriate the next,” says Billy Rankin. “Live to ski another day and remember the best way to lower your risk is to lessen your exposure.” Additionally, Rankin suggests a post-trip debrief. “Grab a beer with your partners and review the day. Ask yourselves: What did we learn? Did we make good decisions, or were we just lucky?” Constant communication and evaluation of when you may have gotten lucky will help your development as a backcountry skier.

7. Utilize radios for better communication

Utilizing radios in the backcountry breaks down two different communication issues: Between partners in a single party and between adjacent parties. “The use of radios is extra helpful in terrain where you can’t always keep a watchful eye on your partner or when you’d need to yell an order to communicate with them,” says Matt Steen, guide and snow safety for Telluride Helitrax. “If groups traveling in a common backcountry area use the same radio channel, communication between parties can help with problem solving if something goes wrong.” Steen recommends the BCA Link Radios, the ‘Smart Mic’ can be attached to a pack’s shoulder strap for ease of use while the actual radio stays in your pack, far enough away from your beacon for it to be effective if needed.

8. Share information and record your observations with the local avalanche center and the Avanet community.

Your local avalanche center probably has a small staff and relies on other entities and professionals to provide data to help make their forecasts as accurate as possible. As a user of the backcountry and avy center websites (see tip number one), help by submitting your observations. “You don’t need to be an expert,” says Brian Lazar. “Tell us what you’re seeing or send us a photo, we’ll take that data and put it into context.” Lazar also notes that personal information can by kept incognito. “If parties are involved in an avalanche or just submitting observations from their secret stash and want to remain anonymous, avalanche centers can can easily keep personal information confidential.” Submitting observations is becoming even easier, check out the app store to see if your local avalanche center has a phone app to submit information. And also be sure to download Avanet, a new resource for backcountry skiers to share and absorb more information about the snowpack.

And remember, the mountains will always be around. Mother nature doesn’t care that you are an expert skier, that you have all the latest gear, that you’re a local or how rad you are. Ski to live another day.