Dig a snowpit, watch for cracks, perform tests on the snowpack, and look for clues to add to the avalanche forecast you already read. PHOTO: Bruno Long

Dig a snowpit, study the layers, and look for clues about the snowpack to help you make the best decisions about where to ski in the backcountry. PHOTO: Bruno Long

Sean Zimmerman-Wall is a full-time ski patrolman at Snowbird, an avalanche educator, and an Andean mountain guide. Check in on Tuesdays for resources and education that will help you have a safe and good season exploring terrain beyond the boundary line.

Venturing into the backcountry requires that we be hyper-aware of our surroundings and fine-tune our senses. It also means that we have to become our own forecasters and play detective from time to time.

The process starts from the moment you wake up in the morning. Carrying out the “daily ritual” means developing a system and sticking with it every time you decide to leave the relatively safe confines of a ski area. Checking the weather report and avalanche forecast are the first step. Looking around and validating these pieces of info comes next. The weather may have changed since you left the house and being a keen observer of what is going on around you is paramount to a long and safe tenure in the mountains.

Once you have started on the trail with your touring partners, communicating what you see and feel is important. Listening to your instinct goes the distance when it comes to being in avalanche terrain. To quote 43-year Snowbird Snow Safety veteran Randy Trover, “If you don’t like where you are, don’t go there.”

Moving through the mountains efficiently and taking time to recognize critical decision points is important because it allows you to take a holistic approach to analyzing the hazard. Is there wind loading along the ridgelines? Has the temperature warmed significantly since leaving the trailhead? Are we experiencing the telltale signs of instability like “whumping” or seeing recent avalanches? Ask yourself these questions as you plod along the skin track.

Piecing together these clues and adding them to the forecast info you already have will help you make better decisions about finding safe terrain. Knowing what the avalanche problem is and where it lives will further aid in your decision-making. If the problem is windslab and it is likely found above tree line on Northwest facing slopes, then those places should be avoided without fail.

A good snow sleuth refines his techniques each time they go into the backcountry. Learning to take all the resources you have at your disposal and combining them with your “nowcast” from the field will help you paint a picture of what kind of dragons you are dealing with.

 Last week’s backcountry tip: Pick a partner, plan your pick