Backcountry Route Planning - How to Find the Best Line to Ski

Published on 23rd Oct 2018

Before bounding blissfully up the skin track this winter, ask yourself if you have really considered the best route up – and ski down – for yourself. When out touring in the backcountry, you spend most of the day on the uphill leg, so give yourself a safe start and consider some of the following route-planning pointers before you put skin to ski, on your next adventure.

“Don’t trivialise the importance or the subtlety of terrain. It takes a lifetime to get a handle on – maybe two lifetimes.”

Chris Stetham, Avalanche Consultant – in “Staying Alive in Backcountry Terrain” by Bruce Tremper

Plan a line via slopes with low angles and the safest aspect

As you get started on planning your route, take a good look at the pitch ahead, and try to connect a route that joins low angle sections to other low angle sections, and sub ridges to sub ridges and main ridges.

Practice gauging the steepness of a backcountry slope and put your guesses to the test using an inclinometer. These are relatively cheap bits of kit and can help you to steer clear of particularly avalanche prone angled routes (between 30 and 45 degrees). Subtle changes in the aspect of a pitch could make all the difference in terms of stability.

Another important step for planning your route as well as considering the aspect, is how recent weather and temperature could have affected it.

Backcountry Route Planning
Scouting off piste ski lines

Choose a route with natural anchors and test the snowpack

Look for anchors on the slope, that will help to hold a slab in place, which would be a good route to aim for. Rocks, trees, and bushes must be densely packed and penetrate the weak layer to have any effect as an anchor. When planning in the backcountry, be aware of trees that have had branches ripped off, this is evidence that avalanches regularly travel through here. Equally, a fracture line can often shoot between sparsely spaced trees, so be sure to stop above them and never just below.

As you travel along your route, continue to gather information about the snow pack. Test the snow with pits and slopes cuts on short, safe slopes that have few consequences, to help you decide the aspect to ski back down.

Make sure you are conscious of the windward and the leeward side of the slope when planning. Be very suspicious of slopes that have accumulated snow drifts.

Avoid terrain traps and make note for your descent

On particularly high risk days, don’t underestimate the possibility of triggering a slide remotely, either by crossing underneath it on a flat slope, above it on a ridgeline or simply by being adjacent to it.

Avoid your route travelling through so called “terrain traps” – areas where the consequences of an avalanche would be particularly dangerous. Steer clear of gullies and depressions or slopes with cliffs below.

On the way up, consider and plan where the best and safest route down will be. You can mentally note “catching features” to look out for on the descent; a cluster of trees or a particular rock, that will help you to remember your route down or mark a point of safety. Also consider what this might look like from above, you’ll have a completely different point of view on the way down. Once at the top, all that’s left to do is enjoy the descent!

scouting back country ski lines
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