The quest for fresh snow and deep turns can take us into new and exciting places. Sometimes these beautiful areas can be dangerous and full of hazards that are easily missed by an untrained eye. If you are beginning, or hoping, to explore the backcountry please read on and let these tips help guide you in a safe, powdery direction.
Take a Course
This is the best way to begin learning about avalanche awareness and safe backcountry travel. It is also a great way to meet like-minded individuals to shred with in the near future. In beginner courses, a highly experienced instructor will help you understand avalanches, teach you how to identify and avoid common hazards and perform proper avalanche rescue techniques.
Get the Gear and Know How to Use It
A transceiver, a shovel, and a probe are essential (though I would say mandatory) rescue tools that you and everyone you are traveling with should have each time you enter the backcountry. This is the gear that could save your or your friend’s life if caught in an avalanche. This is not the place to cut corners or save money. A new three antenna transceiver is the most efficient because it’s easier to use and more accurate than older two antenna transceivers. Once you have the gear and have learned how to use it (from the awesome course you just took) practice, practice, practice and once you’ve got it, practice some more. Practice searching with your transceiver, probing for buried items and proper shoveling techniques. Regular practice will allow you to be confident and effective in a high stress, real life situation should you ever encounter one.
Check out “The Ten Essentials” by T.D. Wood for a list of other helpful gear. Of course don’t forget your board or skis, skins, and poles to travel through snowy terrain.
Track the Local Snowpack
Snowpack refers to the entire depth of snow from the snow surface to the underlying ground. It is made up of layers of different types of snow, each with their own characteristics and behaviors. The way these layers interact and change over time due to environmental factors (such as temperature, wind, sun and additional precipitation) and terrain features (slope angle, ground cover, etc.) influence whether or not avalanches are likely to occur. Use local hazard and avalanche bulletins to follow what is going on in the snowpack.
Make a Plan
There are a lot of decisions to make before going into the backcountry. You need to decide where you are going, who you’re going with, what your goals are, and when you plan to return. How are you going to choose a route through the terrain, deal with the weather and conditions, and make decisions as a group? Thinking and talking through these details with your group before heading out lets everyone get on the same page with their goals and expectations. It is important to identify risks and potential problems beforehand to avoid rash decision-making and conflict in the field. Before you go, leave a detailed trip plan with someone you trust and let them know what to do if you don’t return or check in by a set time. Include where you will be, who you are with, and when you plan to return.
Prepare for the Inconvenient and the Unthinkable
Education, gear, practice, and planning are all great steps to being safe in the backcountry. However, it does not guarantee everything will go as planned. Getting help or rescued from the backcountry can be a lengthy process (hours to days) and, in some areas, may not even be an option. For this reason, it is important to be prepared to deal with everything from a gear malfunction or a blister, to an avalanche or a life-threatening injury. Find out what rescue operations are available in your area and know how to contact them in an emergency.
Exploring the backcountry may seem a bit daunting right now, but it will become easier with practice and time. Until then, make sure you travel with people who know what they are doing. As an instructor friend of mine likes to say, “ski to ski another day.” It is far better to be informed and play it safe so you can continue enjoying the wonderful mountains.
Have fun learning and exploring!