Rainy Days in the Backcountry — Getting the Goods When Avy Danger is High

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 14, 2008      

What to do on a rainy day? The eternal question. In the case of backcountry skiing, a rainy day (as in H20) does come once in a while, especially in wet and scrappy regions. In those zones, you just wring out your Gortex, cut arm holes in a garbage bag, and keep moving. Here in Colorado, rain doesn’t skunk as many backcountry days as high avy danger does. As recently, huge slabs are hanging nearly everywhere around here and no one seems to know when they’ll start dropping.

Dynafit backcountry skiing.
So our eternal question: What do you do on an avy day? My approach is to get out and learn all the nooks and crannies within an hour drive of our home. Places where timbered slopes approach 30 degrees but only exceed that angle in short pitches; perhaps slopes that might face more sunny exposures that bake in the snow layers after nearly every storm so they don’t have the deep unconsolidated slabs you may find on northerly aspects. That’s what we’ve been doing the last few days — and it’s been pretty good.

Above, WildSnow guest blogger Dave Downing tests his Kilowatts and Cloudveil RPK Jacket. On this trip we explored the foothill terrain west of Carbondale, in the Marion Gulch area. Early season skiing back there is a no-go because of brush and timber, but during nearly every February and March you can find moderate terrain with some fun tree skiing in the Aspen forests. You have to do laps as the biggest vertical you’ll get is about a grand.

Dynafit backcountry skiing.
Another option, only used when avy danger is marginal but not excessive, is dipping into the runout zone on an avalanche path for a few quick turns. We only do this when the snowpack is solid enough to eliminate the possibility of remote triggering a slide, and only in small doses way down at the toe of larger paths where you’re far away from the starting zone. Above from yesterday near McClure Pass, Colorado.

Dynafit backcountry skiing.
Another shot from yesterday, only in the trees. At around 30 degrees this slope could slide given worst case scenario, but it was short, varied in pitch and was quite heavily vegetated (not to mention having a solid snowpack). We assessed it as safe, though we still skied one at a time. The results were good.

I take our local avalanche forecasts seriously. They’re all saying we’ve got some huge ones just waiting to fall, so I’m for tiptoeing around till the pack either locks up from warm weather or we do get a spectacular avalanche cycle that takes out the hangfire. Other options in this situation are to ski at the resorts, go nordic, or grab your mountain bike and head for Moab… As for me, I’m having too much fun this season getting in a huge backcountry day count — but doing it with care.


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4 Responses to “Rainy Days in the Backcountry — Getting the Goods When Avy Danger is High”

  1. Rando Swede February 14th, 2008 2:59 pm

    Kudos on this piece Lou. People often overlook the virtues of low angle skiing on high avy danger days. Figuring out/understanding what is really going on the snowpack can be a crap-shoot even for the major snow nerds. The varaiability on a single slope can wreck you day. Check out this video from the Gallatin NF Avy Center…


    Pulling out a map, inclinometer and topo slope gauge can reep some serious powder benefits when the skiing is too tenuous on steep/exposed slopes. And being out on high danger days may give you the opportunity see some things like shooting cracks and whooompfing. You just have to have avoid your exposure with solid route finding skills and of course, be able to control your powder fever!

  2. Tom Gosiorowski February 14th, 2008 8:56 pm


    This is a great thing to be talking about right now as our snowpack in CO is kind of scary,yet there is still good skiing to be had. For me, this is the time of year I really start thinking about getting into the BC in forested terrain as we finally have a thick enough snow pack to cover up the windfall, stumps, and sage brush. One thing I’m a believer in is using the widest ski you can carry. The wide skis really allow you to enjoy skiing on lower angle terrain than we used to be able to ski on the old long and skinny boards. It’s not the adrenalin rush you get on steeper terrain, but it is still enjoyable powder skiing. I also have to second RandoSwede on using the inclinometer. I think the note card style inclinometers are pretty useless, but Sunnto makes one with an eyepiece that you can aim up or down a slope to measure angle and is very accurate. They cost around a $100 new, but can be picked up for half of that on Ebay. Definitely the best peice of avalanche avoidance gear I’ve purchased and I always keep it hanging around my neck or in a pocket when skiing in the BC. If the terrain isn’t steep enough to slide you can’t get caught in an avalanche.

  3. David Aldous February 14th, 2008 10:47 pm

    If you want an inclinometer that you can sight with there is one included with on some compasses like the Silva Ranger 515 CL. You can set up the mirror to look back and read the angle as you sight up the edge of the compass. It may not be quite as accurate as the Suunto instument but it should give within a degree of accuracy and if you are navigating with a compass anyway you are combining to tools in one. I think they retail for about $55 and you might be able to find other compasses that do the same. Just another inclinometer option.

  4. Tom G February 15th, 2008 11:03 am

    David is right, many compasses do have an incliniometer built in. I own the compass that he refers to and can say that I am not able to measure slope angles using the sighting mirror with anywhere near the accuracy I need to make decisions in avalanche terrain. The compass does work well when laid on a ski pole on the snow to measure the slope I’m standing on, but I really want to be able to assess a slope angle before I commit to entering the terrain.

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