Backcountry Safety Guide
By Steve Kopitz
As ski resorts become increasingly crowded and powder lines more scarce, large numbers of skiers and snowboarders are heading out of ski area boundaries every winter in search of untracked powder and adventure. But in the backcountry, pristine slopes, solitude, and unparalleled natural beauty are inexorably linked with inherent risks. This untouched terrain is neither patrolled nor controlled, which critical in creating its paradoxical allure. In these solitary areas, the snow conditions are vastly different from those found within the more predictable confines of a ski area. The excitement and thrills that exist can be unmatched, but one must be cautioned that in these areas, avalanches will accommodate absolutely no one.
An avalanche is a humbling reminder of nature’s power. It can practically go without saying that an avalanche can obliterate anything that is unfortunately placed in its path: people, trees, vehicles, and even buildings cannot be spared from the destruction. While the techniques for predicting and avoiding avalanches are generally reliable, anyone who ventures into the snowy backcountry will never be completely safe from the threat of an avalanche. This is not an attempt to scare you, or deter you from venturing to the backcountry, but rather a way of underscoring the importance of being well-versed in avalanche safety and search and rescue techniques.
The goal of all avalanche safety instruction is to help skiers and snowboarders make smart decisions in the backcountry. This way they can minimize their chances of dealing with an avalanche, as well as ensure that they will know what to do in the event an avalanche occurs. Armed with avalanche knowledge and safety awareness, skiers and snowboarders will be better prepared to balance an acceptable level of risk with the opportunity of experiencing the euphoric beauty of the backcountry.
1. Get a Beacon: Get an avalanche beacon before you go. This may seem like a substantial investment, but in the event of an avalanche this is really your only chance of survival. If it saves you just one time, this substantial investment will be minuscule.
2. Attend a Course or Clinic: Take a course or attend a clinic for avalanche safety before you go. These educational opportunities will provide invaluable hands-on experience in personal safety and rescue techniques, taught by backcountry experts.
3. Educate Yourself: Read up on avalanches and educate yourself before you go. Make sure you do this after you have attended courses and clinics to supplement what you’ve learned. It is important to maintain a healthy respect for the deadly force of nature that is an avalanche, regardless of your experience.
4. Recognize the Terrain: Learn to recognize avalanche terrain before you go. This is information you will learn through courses, clinics, and your own reading, but it is important to fully recognize the terrain that can spawn an avalanche. Most avalanches travel in paths, on smooth, exposed slopes angled between 25 and 60 degrees, but there are many exceptions of course. To make an informed assessment of avalanche danger, it is essential to understand the significance of various terrain features. This includes slope angles, rocks, cornices (snow overhang) and other wind-snow formations, ledges, and vegetation. Making such assessments will come easier with experience in the backcountry, but you can also learn an immense deal about such terrain features from guides and instructors.
5. Practice Searching: Do not dismiss the ability for you, and other individuals you will be traveling with, to find avalanche transceivers. While you can’t create the exact situation of an avalanche, you can practice searching for your companions’ avalanche transceiver. One great way to do this is to have a friend bury their beacon in the snow, basically simulating a skier buried under an avalanche. Have all of the other individuals who will be traveling on the adventure search out the buried beacon. Rehearse until everyone you will be traveling with feels confident about his or her ability to locate each beacon as quickly as possible.
6. Do Your Homework: Research your route and snow conditions in the exact location(s) you plan to ski before you go. Call your local avalanche warning center and check the current and forecasted weather before heading into the backcountry. Be prepared to adjust plans and/or routes accordingly.
7. The “Human Factor”: Remember and anticipate the “human factor”, that is, the fact that people may exhibit undesirable behavior in stressful situations. Your attitude and those of your companions can often mean the difference between a safe trip and a catastrophic one. Make sure you travel with people who have similar goals and attitudes.
1. Carry Avalanche Equipment: Always carry avalanche equipment once you’re there. Avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels should be carried by each member of the group at all times. Any of these items will be worthless if it is buried under 5 feet of snow in a backpack. Everyone should carry these 3 items and know how to use them.
2. Be Aware: Be aware of your surrounding once you’re there. Stay alert, survey the area you are in routinely, and constantly be on the lookout for environmental indicators that indicate a potential slide. This includes recent avalanche activity and changes in terrain, snowpack, and weather conditions.
3. Analyze Stability: Survey, study, and analyze the snowpack stability once you’re there. As with studying terrain features, reading snowpack takes years of experience. This doesn’t mean that you are going to be helpless if you lack experience. There are several tests that can reveal the layers of a snow field and help you assess the risks involved with unstable snow. Such tests include ski pole tests, snowpit tests, resistance testes, and “shear” tests. Of course if you’d be more comfortable learning before you go, there are number of snow study courses available across the United States.
a. Ski Pole Test: A ski pole test involves pushing your ski pole as deep into the snow as possible. By feeling how much pressure is required to push through and pull out at different depths, you can determine the different “layers” of hardness in the snowpack. You can then further examine the layers closest to the surface by placing your hand in the hole. This test is very basic and will help you tell if the snowpack is more or less likely to breakaway and slide.
b. Snowpit Test: A snowpit test is a more advanced version of the ski pole test. This test involves digging a pit in the snow with your shovel. The pit should be several meters wide and go all the way to the ground. This will allow several people to enter the pit and analyze the different layers of snow, as well as the probability of an avalanche.
c. Resistance Test: This test involves checking the density of each layer of snowpack. Typically this is performed within a snowpit. Each layer is given a density measurement depending on how hard the layer resists crumbling from outside force.
d. “Shear” Test: A shear test involves digging a waist deep pit in the snow with one of the vertical walls being perfectly straight and smooth. Then, vertical section of the pit should be marked on the wall every 12 inches, or the depth of your shovel. Once these sections are marked, insert your shovel 12 inches behind the wall vertically and “pull” a cube of snow toward you. This will help in analyzing the harness of the different layers.
4. Cross Potential Slopes: Cross potential avalanche slopes one at a time once you’re there. If you doubt a slope’s stability but still intend to cross it, only expose one person at a time to the potential for danger. When climbing or traversing, each person should be at least 100 yards from the next person. Travelers should climb steep narrow chutes one at a time, and when descending the slope, it should be skied alone. This will not only minimize the number of people who could get caught in a slide (and maximizes the number of people available for rescue) but it also reduces the stress put on the snowpack.
1. Do not overlook clues. Evidence of potential avalanche hazards will be around you. You just need to pay attention for what the snow, terrain, and weather is telling you. If you educate yourself and communicate with your companions, you should have the tools necessary to make smart decisions in the backcountry.
2. Avoid traveling to the backcountry alone and never leave the group you are skiing with. If you run into trouble you’ll be on your own, which can be very dangerous.
3. Do not assume avalanches occur in obvious large paths only. While most slides will travel on broad, steep, and smooth slopes, they can also wind down gullies or through forested areas. A good rule of thumb is if you can ski or snowboard through it, and avalanche can slide through it as well.
4. As tempting as it will be for you and your group, never travel in the backcountry on the day following a big storm. You should let the snowpack settle for at least 24 hours before heading out.
5. Do not assume a slope is safe because there are existing tracks from other skiers crossing it. Wind, sun, and temperature changes are continually altering the snow stability, so you must be approach it as untouched terrain. What was safe and stable yesterday (or even earlier that day) may not be later in the day. Furthermore, each time you cross a slope you apply additional stress to the snowpack, which can cause it to slide.
6. Do not assume you’re safe because you’re wearing a transceiver. Your beacon is only as effective as the people using its signal to locate you. Assumptions like this can get you killed in the backcountry.
7. Do not allow your judgment to be clouded by the desire to ride the steepest pitch or get the freshest snow. Staying alive should be your focus as it is much more important than any powder line.
8. Do not hesitate to voice concerns or fears to your group. If you’re uncomfortable, it is probably for good reason and therefore you should be heard.
Finally, remember that you shouldn’t consider yourself an avalanche expert just because you’ve taken a lot of courses and traveled extensively in the backcountry, or even because you’ve read this article. It is important to have a healthy respect for Mother Nature and its beauty, as well as the destructive power it can possess. If you are prepared, you can enjoy everything that Mother Nature truly has to offer. Arm yourself with a beacon, a shovel, probes, your favorite fat skis, and your knowledge and respect of the backcountry and you’re certain to have blast. There truly is nothing like a day in the backcountry, enjoying the waist deep powder and untracked lines.
- Contributions to this article made by the Colorado Division of Emergency Management