Backcountry Essentials: Be Professional

What the rest of us can learn from the skiers who work in the backcountry

There's a lot the rest of us can learn from the professionals who work in the backcountry on a daily basis. PHOTO: Sean Zimmerman Wall

There’s a lot the rest of us can learn from the professionals who work in the backcountry on a daily basis. PHOTO: Sean Zimmerman Wall

This is a weekly series about backcountry travel and snow safety. 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.

Every year, the Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop (USAW), held in Salt Lake City the first weekend of November, brings snow professionals from around the mountain west together to talk about rescue techniques, avalanches, and snow science. It's a chance for ski patrollers, avalanche forecasters, mountain guides, search and rescue personnel, and the skiing public to share knowledge with each other.

"How great it is for us all to come together," Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Craig Gordon said at this year's workshop.

During one session, the group talked about things to do in the field to be cautious and avoid some of the tragedies experienced by a few of the ski patrollers there. Among the many takeaways, good communication and constant awareness rose to the top. Working in the mountains day in and day out breaks down defenses. It's easy to forget just how much is at stake every time you click in.

"Familiarity breeds contempt," says Liam Fitzgerald, director of the Utah Department of Transportation in Little Cottonwood Canyon. "We must realize the dangers of our jobs, focus on our actions, and try not to become complacent."

As professionals—and this is a lesson that transcends to recreational backcountry skiers, too—sound decision-making needs to become ingrained in everyday life, which means that routines need to be established and followed. Knowing your own strengths, and that of your partners, is paramount to a successful outing.

Taking a glimpse into the dialogue that happens at the professional level helps the rest of us realize why they are among the safest group of people in the mountains. Developing a regimen that helps you filter information, focus on the task at hand, recognize objective dangers, and be flexible with your goals ensures longevity. This boils down to transparent communication with the rest of your group. It's also a good idea to review poor decisions and learn from mistakes. So the next time you go into the mountains, be professional.

Visit the Utah Avalanche Center for more information about the workshop.

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