Published on Tue 19 Mar, 2019
The backcountry is risky. The backcountry is also incredibly fun! Once that snow starts falling, there’s only one thing on your mind: POWDER. But before you take your first steps off piste this season: Have you checked your beeper batteries? Can you tell your facets from your surface hoar? Your slabs from your suncrusts? Often, there is large imbalance between a skier’s skill level and their avalanche awareness: being an expert skier does not make you an expert avalanche forecaster. We’ve put together a rough safety guide, highlighting a few essentials to brush up on in preparation for this winter’s adventures. We highly recommend taking some time to learn about this powerful environment that we so willingly (rashly even) venture into.
Know your environment: snowpack, weather and terrain
The mountain environment is fickle. The weather is subject to rapid and dramatic changes, the snowpack is erratic and varied, and important subtleties in terrain can be easily missed. Learning about, and applying, snow science and weather knowledge is a lifetime endeavour.
When out in the mountains you should try to gather as much information as possible about your surroundings to help you make good decisions. These five red flags should help you to make an assessment of your chosen off piste route:
-Watch out for RECENT AVALANCHE ACTIVITY. It is undisputable evidence of instability.
-Has there been SIGNIFICANT SNOWFALL IN THE LAST 24 HOURS? This snow will not have had any time to bond or settle into a compact, secure layer and so is inherently unstable.
-Be aware that a RISE IN TEMPERATURE causes the snow pack to melt, to become heavier and can act as lubrication between the layers in the snow.
-Look out for CRACKING AND WHOOMPING IN THE SNOW. This indicates the presence of wind slab, which can form an unstable layer in snow pack. The 'whoomphing' sounds coming from within the pack indicate the collapse of a weak layer.
-Be especially alert to STRONG WINDS, which pick up snow and deposit it elsewhere creating tightly packed slabs. If a slab is formed on top of a weak layer of snow that it cannot bond with, a small additional force, like that of a ski track, footprint or pole plant, can be enough to trigger a release. Beware of wind slab forming on the leeward side of the mountain.
-There are many great resources online and in print for beginning this learning process. Two of our favourite books are 'Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce Tremper' and 'Freeskiing: How to Adapt to the Mountain, by Jimmy Oden'.
Know how to travel safely
Your kit should include:
-Map: Can you read it?
-Compass: Can you take a bearing?
-Altimeter: Do you know why the barometer changes and which change can indicate bad weather?
If you are travelling with a group in the backcountry here are a few things to consider:
-Keep the group size small. Between two and four people maximum.
-Make decisions as a group, for yourselves. Other tracks on a face do not indicate safety.
-Make a plan of how you will descend a pitch. Travel one at a time and stop in a safe place.
-Keep line of sight with your group and be sure to COMMUNICATE.
Know your equipment and rescue procedure
Your equipment should include:
-First aid kit
How do I learn how to use it?
All transceiver manufacturers have online video libraries explaining best rescue practice. It is important to be aware that mastering efficient shovelling and probing techniques can save you time too, and could save a life.
How much practice do I need?
Get out with friends and bury transceivers for each other in chopped up slopes. Practise finding one transceiver in four minutes and then two transceivers within eight minutes. Many resorts have transceiver training parks, which are great facilities for learning to use your device. You can never have too much practice.
Where do I start with all of this?
Avalanche awareness courses and off piste training camps are great ways to start putting your knowledge into action. Alternatively, getting a group of friends together and hiring a mountain guide will get you a tailored experience to help you get to grips with good practice.
Henry’s Avalanche Talk run events in the UK and Europe, including live talks, personal on snow training, practical beeper training and COPE certification, in addition to their online training modules. HAT offer great advice and professional expertise and are a great start for getting you avalanche aware.
Beware of the human factor
Making good choices in the backcountry is often, regrettably blurred by adrenaline and expectation even when faced with all the facts. Be aware of considering WHY you are making a decision and if it is the best decision for your entire party.
Do’s and don’ts:
-Don’t let FAMILIARITY with a slope allow you to make assumptions about its safety.
-Don’t get COMPLACENT after you’ve had success earlier in the day.
-Don’t let PEER PRESSURE get the better of you.
-Don’t allow COMPETITION for first tracks, or a SCARCITY of fresh snow, persuade you to overlook obvious dangers.
-Don’t blindly FOLLOW the person in charge, even if you think they have superior knowledge.
-Do continue to MAKE YOUR OWN ASSESSMENTS of surroundings.
-Do COMMUNICATE with your party
Be sure to check out Powder Magazine’s Human Factor video series for some good lessons learned.
If you do head into off piste terrain this season, then we hope you have an awesome time! When you come across any questionable conditions then be sure to backtrack, find another slope or simply dig in and wait it out.