10 Commandments “Stone Tablets” of Avalanche Safety – Bruce Tremper


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 2, 2016      

In the case of avalanche safety most of us practice a bit of situational relativism when it comes to rules. For example, you’re spring touring on firm nieve; perhaps you bring a smaller shovel, or gang ski instead of going one-at-a-time. Yet overall, if you want to stay alive in modern ski touring it helps to have a set of proven (not mythical) rules that up your odds.

Avalanche safety educator Bruce Tremper’s Avalanche Essentials book is a terrific little tome that condenses the conventional wisdom into 189 pages.

The book is profusely illustrated with numerous diagrams and real-life photos. A thorough index rounds things out, making it useful for research or as a fulcrum during safety classes and seminars.

Bruce Tremper book Avalanche Essentials is a dashboard sized.

Bruce Tremper book Avalanche Essentials is dashboard sized, perfect for some refresher study on the way to the trailhead.

And when it comes to rules Tremper doesn’t mess around. Check out his “Ten Commandments of Low-Risk Travel.” Here is the gist, with my comments in parentheses. Get the book for excellent exposition of each Stone Tablet.

  • 1st Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Go One at a Time. (The prime directive, if obeyed more often we’d see a significant drop in avalanche tragedies. We blog extensively on this concept.)

  • 2nd Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Have an Escape Route Preplanned. (Virtually every minute you’re in avalanche terrain, think about how you’d escape a slide if escape is possible. Little things count; a favorite of mine is minding which direction my skis are pointed when waiting for other skiers or doing on-slope photography, um, see Commandment One…)

  • 3rd Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Never Go First. (While slides are fickle and often occur after the slope is first touched, statistics show that 90% of slides take the first skier. Experts and guides take note: You are often the first due to genuine altruism — or your job. This puts you at great risk compared to your companions. Mitigate with ropes, terrain selection, etcetera. To add emphasis, consider how important this is when you’re a seasoned ski mountaineer in groups of people much less experienced than you are, as you may frequently be in situations where you go first. Mitigate the added risk by being extra careful.)

  • 4th Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Never Trust a Cornice. (Another one for frequent alpine travelers. Talk to backcountry skiers you know and it won’t take long to find someone who had a friend or loved one perish due to a cornice incident. Easy to get lackadaisical about cornices. Rethink your approach and get more conservative, as well as taking care to recognize “stealth cornices” that are hidden from view when you’re above them.)

  • 5th Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Be Obsessed with Consequences. (A big one around here at Wildsnow.com, with nearly all our close friends and loved ones involved in backcountry ski touring. Repeat to yourself: If someone is caught in a slide, she’ll probably be really badly hurt, crippled, or dead. This isn’t a trivial game, as portrayed in ski movies with soundtracks that open the endorphin faucet. Enjoy the movies, but get real and be sure your flick has a happy ending.)

  • 6th Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Start Small and Work Your Way Up. (Excellent. Automatically gets you into a methodical approach. “Only a fool jumps into a big slope without first gathering data from other safer places,” is how Tremper writes it. This one requires a caveat. A common recipe for failure is to use the perceived stability of lesser terrain to rationalize a tragically “final” hit on bigger terrain. Procedure for this is to hit small “test slopes” at the same elevation and aspect as your bigger goal. I like test slopes that have a nice pronounced crown that puts the snow slab under plenty of tension, thus helping get a response to testing if any instability exists. Test slopes are probably more worth your time than digging snow numerous snow pits.)

  • 7th Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Communicate. (Keep your groups small enough to allow meaningful dialog and a cohesive style. Use radios.)

  • 8th Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Use a Belay Rope. (Rope has saved my life several times in avalanche terrain. Rope has saved my friends and loved ones several times too. Let 30 meters of “rando” cord save yours.) Shop for rando rope. Also check out the Beal 7.3 mm Gully Unicore.

  • 9th Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Use the Right Equipment. (Tremper writes extensively on this, as “equipment” goes beyond the classic beacon/shovel/probe to ideas such as always using releasable ski bindings, not using pole straps, and realizing that the avalanche airbag will probably soon be considered as essential as the PFD in water sports. I’d add that any group recreating in avalanche terrain should have several emergency locator beacons. SPOT is simple but only communicates one-way. Delorme inReach is our favorite these days.

  • 10th Commandment
  • Thou Shalt Remember — Terrain, Terrain, Terrain. (This is where experience can and often does immeasurably up your odds. Realize that unless you’ve been backcountry skiing for many years your terrain recognition skills may not be as developed as you think — also realize that everyone’s head works differently; some people are more visual and better at pattern recognition. Figure out who those people are; listen to them. Check out our Avalanche Safety category here at WildSnow.com for a huge amount of information and opinion.

  • 11th Commandment
  • Fanaticism is Good. (This is my additional “eleventh” commandment. Kind of ironic, as the concept of 10 Commandments is often considered overly fanatical in today’s world of relativism. Where morality comes from is a topic for philosophy blogs. In our case, we’ll say that in the case of the proven physical laws that cause avalanches, a healthy dose of fanaticism that conforms to those laws is a good thing. See one through ten above.

    Commenters! What’s your 11th Commandment of avalanche safety?

    Comments

    49 Responses to “10 Commandments “Stone Tablets” of Avalanche Safety – Bruce Tremper”

    1. chris blatter September 11th, 2014 9:44 am

      #1 Rule: Always ski backcountry with someone to whom you owe $$$$$. It encourages them to dig when you get buried!

    2. Jason Speer September 11th, 2014 9:55 am

      My parents did a lot of diving (mom was recreational, dad was a professional) before I was born and they always told me that one of the keys to diving was to wear a really expensive dive watch and to make sure your partners knew it. That way if you don’t show up at the surface someone is likely to at least look for your watch. I’m not sure how serious they were. 🙂

      Good list of commandments.

    3. Charlie September 11th, 2014 11:33 am

      Choosing the right rules to follow is hard. Strict adherence to inapplicable ones can yield poor results.

      Fanaticism is troublesome, for example. If we stick to an orthodox interpretation of commandment #3, nobody will ever ski, as they’re all waiting to ski second.

    4. bill h September 11th, 2014 11:44 am

      practice Practice PRACTICE (!)

      (beacon searches, strategic shoveling, measuring slopes, first aid refreshers, etc. etc. yada yada, take a companion rescue course)

      In touring and teaching, we are continually amazed at the number of people we meet who’s last mock beacon search was at their Avy 1 course…years before.

      or… stuff you pockets with bacon so the dog can find you faster?

    5. Eric Steig September 11th, 2014 1:11 pm

      How about not calling them by the cutsie term “avy”? How about avoid that and going back to “avalanche”, which sounds a lot more serious. See commandments 5 and 11.

      A good 12th commandment would be “bring a beacon, and whatever other gear you think appropriate, but then make decisions as if you don’t have them”.

    6. Steve September 11th, 2014 4:21 pm

      Exactly what Bill H. said above. Expert skiers are often not expert avalanche rescuers and it’s mind-boggling how many people in the backcountry are average to below average with effectively using their rescue equipment. This video is an example of that (though not technically in the backcountry). Finding this buried woman could have been solved in under one minute had someone established themselves as a leader and organized an efficient probe line. Instead, it is mayhem and totally unorganized: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAdR99YMB0U

    7. joe merriman September 11th, 2014 6:11 pm

      Many, perhaps most, major, life-threatening avalanches happen within 24 hours after a storm, sometimes even longer, depending on local conditions like wind affecting the snow pack. The commandments make sense, but people who follow the commandments but insist on skiing/boarding immediately after a dump are still often taking extreme risks. Avoiding this risk may mean not making first powder tracks, but victims of avalanches never ski powder again.

    8. Matt Kinney September 11th, 2014 6:28 pm

      Good to see solo was not banned, so the 3rd is not applicable along with a few others. Perhaps we need 10 commandments for soloist which a lot of people do. Maybe 5 or less.

    9. Scott Nelson September 11th, 2014 8:33 pm

      One that I use is that I’m not afraid to turn around if I don’t feel good about the conditions, or God forbid, just go skin a lap or two at a resort if BC conditions seem dangerous. But I do ski alone quite a bit. Interestingly though, when in a group I may be more open to keep going. Not due to peer pressure, but more of a fantasy thought that there is safety in numbers. That seems to be somewhat of a total myth though.

    10. Ru September 12th, 2014 3:48 am

      chris blatter: so long as you seem to have a good chance of paying them back, of course.

      I’ve just been reading a French guidebook (Les clés de l’Espace Killy) where the author suggests not skiing with the husband of your mistress, amongst other things. I wonder if this is a common risk factor for French skiiers.

      I’d second Scott’s suggestion above; never be afraid to turn around. Useful advice in all situations, not just in avalanche terrain.

    11. Karl 'Core-shot' K. September 12th, 2014 7:40 pm

      Hi Lou & Company

      I like the 10 commandments a lot, they are sincere and to the point: follow them and live. Albeit, like the Decalogue, 10 can be a cumbersome number. In the Wildland Firefighting community we have a lot of lists too, be it the “10 Standard Firefighting Orders”, “18 Watch-Out situations”, “Common Denominators of Tragedy Fires”, or the “Down-Hill Line Construction Checklist”. That list goes on.
      A great Firefighter, Leader, and Climber named Paul Gleason, examined these lists and developed a concept that distilled them into four, basic components: “L.C.E.S”. It stands for Lookouts, Communication, Escape Route, and Safety Zones”. Follow them and live! In Gleason’s original paper, “L.C.E.S. and other thoughts:

      http://www.fireleadership.gov/toolbox/documents/lces_gleason.html

      He explains the need to empathize these four points and their practicality. Throughout he makes parallels to climbing and the mountain environment, something I could strongly relate to. Having been a student of fire almost as long as a student of snow, I have incorporated these principles into myI travel methods into the backcountry (and bars). Its an application of procedure and works good for me and those I bring into the backcountry. Rather than preach my translation of “L.C.E.S.” any further, I’d like to invite those interested to review the attached article, draw their own parallels, and incorporate. Thanks for the blog! Stoked for the TLT Speed Turn!

      -Cheers

    12. ptor September 13th, 2014 2:47 am

      I agree with Charlie and would amend #3 to say ” Thou shalt always be prepared to go first and deal accordingly… or hire a guide or stay home”. People should stop watching so much pro-rider videos where pretty much nobody acts like a lead skier. Learn how to ski cut, read terrain and conditions and be able to ‘safety ski’! You just don’t pawn off risk on your partners, it’s a shared responsibility. Avalanches are also started by skiers moving the big chunks of snow in between turns after it seems the slope is OK because it didn’t go with the previous skiers, especially in steeper terrain. It’s also ludicrous to think the slope is safer because it didn’t go on the lead skier, regardless of statistics.

    13. Lou Dawson 2 September 13th, 2014 6:32 am

      Good stuff Ptor, thanks.

    14. Rick September 13th, 2014 11:47 am

      I like one for skiers who ski their same zones a lot. We know when we are skiing a shot that is a known slide path. When conditions are unstable, stay out of known paths.
      If you going to get slid at least it may be of smaller size or an area less prone.

      Thou shall not ski ski slide historical slide paths. Like the ones names after lost freinds

    15. Rob S. September 13th, 2014 4:29 pm

      My 11th Commandment is “Bring Women”. Coed parties are statisticallty less likely to suffer avalanche fatalities (in fact, I think I read that a few years ago in Temper’s book). Remember, testosterone kills…

    16. Lou Dawson 2 September 13th, 2014 4:47 pm

      The stat I heard is there needs to be more than one woman, only one and more danger due to some weird dynamic or perhaps just misleading metrics.

    17. Erik Erikson September 14th, 2014 12:12 am

      If you (have to) decide to ski a potentially dangerous slope: Do it fast BUT above all controlled so you will not fall and apply even more impact.
      Check if even a small Avalanche could kill you aside from burying (tear you over a cliff, push you against a tree and so on) and choose your line adapted to that

    18. Rob S. September 14th, 2014 4:37 pm

      Lou – ref your mention of emergency communications for the BC….I understand Delorme has a new inReach Explorer that adds basic GPS nag functions to the comms package. Any chance you’ll be getting your mitts on that for field testing this season?

    19. Falco October 10th, 2014 3:53 pm

      Hey Lou,

      didn´t know where to post, but this could be interesting for you.

      New study about the effectiveness of avalanche airbags:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909367

      http://www.slf.ch/praevention/verhalten/notfallausruestung/lawinenairbag/index_DE

      ski safe,

      Falco

    20. Tom C. November 18th, 2016 9:46 am

      Lou,

      Here is a topic that I think is worth discussing. I’d appreciate your insights, and if you would please consider starting this as a new blog post/article.

      * Skiing ‘One at a Time’: What does skiing ‘one at a time’ really mean? What are pros, cons, and considerations related to skiing ‘one at a Time’ ?

      * What does skiing “one at a time” really mean?

      * If you feel you need to ski “one at a time”, should you be skiing the slope at all?
      https://www.wildsnow.com/2649/lindley-hut-avalanche-ashcroft-aspen/

      https://www.wildsnow.com/20345/risk-management-backcountry-ski-touring/

      * What is, and what is not, a true “island of safety”?

      * Does a true “island of safety” sometimes require 1,000 feet or more of separation from others in your group, and 2-way radios in order to maintain communications among members of your group?

      * Discuss avalanche paths, including starting zones, track, and run out zones.
      https://www.wildsnow.com/10011/alpha-angle-avalanche-safety/

      http://www.fsavalanche.org/avalanche-path/

      http://www.fsavalanche.org/starting-zone/

      http://www.fsavalanche.org/runout-zone

      * Discuss the utility of 2-way radios.
      https://www.wildsnow.com/5854/2-way-radios-walkie-talkie-review/

      * Perhaps most useful – provide photos of various mountains, some where avalanche incidents occurred. Within these photos, identify known and also potential avalanche paths (starting zones, track, and run out zones), true islands of safety, possible up routes, possible down routes, and show the distance in feet between each true island of safety.

      ex. Tunnel Creek, Sheeps Creek, Shasta’s Avalanche Gulch, a few chutes and couloirs, etc

      http://www.ram.org/pictures/sights/mt_shasta/shasta_1.jpg

    21. Chris K November 20th, 2016 10:27 am

      Thanks, subscribed! Good to be reminded of all this as the white stuff starts to fly.

    22. Lou Dawson 2 November 20th, 2016 11:17 am

      Tom, delayed thanks from me for the feedback. I’ll see what I can do. Lou

    23. Tom C. November 20th, 2016 1:05 pm

      Lou,
      Thank you sir, much appreciated! I enjoy your writing and books, and I enjoyed hearing you speak in Tahoe last year. THANKS FOR ALL YOU DO!
      -Tom

    24. Tom C. November 20th, 2016 1:08 pm

      Interesting reading about an incident near Echo Pass/Tahoe in December 2012, that occurred when the avalanche warning was Moderate. The article mentions how taking comfort in going “one at a time” might have lead to sub optimal terrain selection.

      http://www.alpineworldascents.com/blog/104006/8549/

      http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/observation/avalanche/2012/dec/29/skier-triggered-avalanche-echo-peak

    25. Tom C. November 20th, 2016 1:12 pm

      Here’s an article about the multi-fatality Tunnel Creek avalanche incident, where folks “thought” they were going “one at a time”, and where the article, perhaps erroneously, reports that the members of the group “skied down one at a time”.

      Would it me more accurate and useful to say that the members of the group “…thought they were skiing one at a time, but in fact had more than 1 person within the same avalanche path at athe same time”?

      http://www.sportgevity.com/article/goal-setting-and-risk-perception-accident-analysis-tunnel-creek-avalanche

    26. Lou Dawson 2 December 2nd, 2016 8:43 am

      Tom C, I’m working on more blog posts specific to avalanche danger. Lou

    27. skialper December 2nd, 2016 9:07 am

      it’s definitely an interesting book. We bought the rights for the italian language and it will be printed and distributed soon!
      È un libro interessantissimo, infatti abbiamo appena acquisito i diritti per la lingua italiana dall’editore e lo pubblicheremo nelle prossime settimane!

    28. Lou Dawson 2 December 2nd, 2016 10:27 am

      Thanks Skialper, appreciate the Italian version, we have a lot of readers from Italy. Lou

    29. Andrew December 2nd, 2016 1:19 pm

      How about “keep your eyes open” and possibly “take advice from older, wiser and more experienced skiers”.

      After riding the chair with an experienced local skier it was eye opening that he could easily identify pow stashes, prior wind direction, high risk zones, recent avalanche activity and so on which I could not see.

    30. See December 2nd, 2016 7:35 pm

      As the backcountry gets more crowded, morality figures into the safety equation right along with physical laws. https://www.wildsnow.com/21009/ski-touring-regulation-permits/ I can’t find the link, but the story about the woman who got caught by an avalanche triggered by some guys who rode a highly dubious slope even though they knew there were people below them is something we all need to think about, imo.

    31. jasper December 2nd, 2016 8:01 pm

      Ski fast. Ski smooth.

    32. See December 2nd, 2016 8:33 pm
    33. Thom Mackris December 2nd, 2016 9:06 pm

      Carry all of your safety gear but navigate terrain and make go/no-go decisions as if you left it at the trailhead.

      … Thom

    34. Tom C. December 2nd, 2016 9:37 pm

      re: “The person who got caught by an avalanche triggered by others who rode a highly dubious slope even though they knew there were people below them”.

      Making your safety while in an avalanche path dependent on others not skiing the slope is in my opinion not a smart practice. I suggest that folks should avoid entering an avalanche path that is “dubious”. You can not control the actions of others, and avalanches can be triggered naturally.

      To get caught in an avalanche, a person needs to enter an avalanche path (starting zone, track, runout zone). Anyone who gets caught in an avalanche shares a significant part of the responsibility.

    35. See December 2nd, 2016 9:45 pm

      Easier said than done as population density increases.

    36. See December 2nd, 2016 9:49 pm

      And, if I recall correctly, the story I was referring to involved people who skied a less dubious route that ended below the slope that slid.

    37. Tom C. December 2nd, 2016 10:24 pm

      See,
      The people who got caught in the avalanche chose to put themselves in an avalanche path. The fact that they you not ski in an avalanche path does not make the avalanche less dangerous, and the fact that you might be standing in a meadow when an avalanche comes down on you is also not especially relevant. What is relevant is choosing to put yourself in an avalanche path with dubious terrain, always a risky decision, regardless of how you got there.

    38. See December 2nd, 2016 10:44 pm

      OK, but I guess I’m just saying that what determines who is above who on any given slope is mostly timing, and I’m not comfortable with the idea that the people at the top have no responsibility regarding the people lower down.

    39. See December 3rd, 2016 3:58 am

      Tom, you’re right of course that being anywhere there is a significant risk of being caught in an avalanche is a bad idea, not just a matter of timing.

    40. Buck December 3rd, 2016 7:27 am

      with the crowds at roger’s these days, that tour up connaught creek takes a little bit of denial. Unless you’re up there first, you’re moving under huge paths with all kinds of jokers doing all kinds of sh*t above you. Can’t believe another mass burial the scale of the cheops schoolgroup hasn’t happened there.

    41. Matt Kinneu December 3rd, 2016 9:08 am

      Don’t ignore obvious clues.
      Leave your dog at home if you intend to ski avalanche terrain.

    42. harpo December 4th, 2016 5:58 pm

      Great post, I will reread this and follow all the links. What do people think of releasable pole straps (commandment #9)? Many different companies now make releasable straps, including Life Link, Leki, K2, and just this year BD. I even put some Life Link releasable grips/straps on my BD poles years ago. My Life Link and Leki (Trigger) straps release a couple of times a year when I snag them on bushes while skiing, or trap my baskets between rocks while hiking a boulder field. I have been in a few small stuffs, but I have never had to test my releasable straps in an avi. I am a long time XC skier and got used to poling hard using straps while XC skiing. I found that my poling technique sucked and that I didn’t pole aggressively if I skied downhill without using the straps, which is why I ski alpine and BC with releasable straps.

    43. See December 4th, 2016 7:30 pm

      I’m a big fan of Life Link poles, but I think the company no longer exists.

    44. Pablo December 5th, 2016 5:50 am

      For me, an interesting safety strategy is to have not only an scape route in case of high danger terrain but also to have a second o even a third desire or goal.

      If your goal (desire) is one and only: to shred that slope, or to reach that peak.
      You can feel frustated if you can’t reach it because of a safety decisión and it’s very easy to avoid prudence.
      But if you have another goal, as having a great journey with friends or finishing a ski day taking some beers, is easy to discard goal nº1 because of safety decisions.

      Forgive my English, I hope you understand what I mean

    45. Lou Dawson 2 December 5th, 2016 9:42 am

      See, Life-Link doesn’t really exist. For a long time they sold their inventory through Garmont, then when Garmont went to Scott they faded it out as far as I know. It would be nice if another company began distributing accessories for ski touring, I bought a lot of things like ski pole baskets from Life-Link. Lou

    46. Lou Dawson 2 December 5th, 2016 9:42 am

      See, Life-Link doesn’t really exist. For a long time they sold their inventory through Garmont, then when Garmont went to Scott they faded it out as far as I know. It would be nice if another company began distributing accessories for ski touring, I bought a lot of things like ski pole baskets from Life-Link. Lou

    47. Jay December 5th, 2016 4:21 pm

      This is probably caught up in number 5, but several recent incidents have still involved trees being treated as islands of safety, in several cases only a couple trees that were imo still clearly in harms way. While people have worked hard to dispel the old idea that skiable trees are safer, the idea still gets repeated, and trees are also visually seductive simply because they give a target to ski to.

    48. harpo December 6th, 2016 10:10 am

      I have two Life Link releasable grips still inservice, one on a LL variable length pole that I leave at one length, and another that I put on a old BD Traverse Flicklock pole that still is fully functional.

      Currently, Leki, BD, and K2 (I think) make poles with releasable straps. Why no love?

    49. Lou Dawson 2 December 8th, 2016 3:03 pm

      Jay, I see the problem of “visually seductive trees” occurring all the time. For example, I often see people skiing avalanche paths and staying close to the edge in a position where if it does slide they’d be worked by the trees, while if they were farther out towards the middle of the slope they would be safer from tree hits. Somehow they think skiing the edge of the path is safer. That might be the case in rare instances, but how would you really even know? IMHO, if you’re doing to ski an avalanche slope, pick the line with the least consequences if it does slide. That means staying away from being above trees or other terrain features that could hurt you. Lou

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