Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
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.
And when it comes to rules Tremper doesn’t mess around. Check out his “Ten Commandments of Low-Risk Travel.” Below is the gist, with my comments in parentheses. Get the book for excellent exposition of each Stone Tablet.
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.)
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…)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
Thou Shalt Communicate. (Keep your groups small enough to allow meaningful dialog and a cohesive style. Use radios.)
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.
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.
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.
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?