Avalanche Safety: 5 Tips to Keep You Alive

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 8, 2016      
Blase Reardon, CAIC Avalanche Forecaster, shares a few tips.

Blase Reardon, Colorado CAIC Avalanche Forecaster, shares a few tips.

We had our always enjoyable “Community Avalanche Evening” here in Carbondale, Colorado last night (thanks retailer Cripple Creek Backcountry for hosting). Blase Reardon, who I’d call our main forecaster, did the honors with a well honed talk he titles “The Wicked Environment.”

Reardon’s premise is that unlike other risky and somewhat chance based activities (e.g., card games such as blackjack) the ski touring snow environment hides much of the game and doesn’t give many second chances. Wicked. Frequently very little feedback.

So how do you deal? For ultra conservative backcountry skiing, Tremper’s “10 ways to not get caught” do excellent service. But if you’re playing the game with a little more aggression for those powder runs, Reardon came up with these five points.

5. Use rituals. For example, since forgetting one item you usually pack can become a nexus for a safety issue, always carry the same things. That way you’re not standing there in the morning with your bowl of oatmeal in one hand and coffee in the other, trying to guess whether to bring goggles or not.

4. Don’t solo. Here in Colorado fully a quarter of our avalanche deaths last year were people skiing by themselves. Overall, in the avalanche literature you can find numerous examples of solo skier dying who probably could have been saved by a companion rescue. My view on this is if you go solo, learn how to judge that a run is near 100% safe. Perhaps based on factors such as slope angles under 30 degrees, or frozen spring corn, or simply a slope that’s been skied so much it’s simply not going to slab off. If you do that and carry something like an inReach, enjoy. Otherwise, you might be in a much more dangerous situation than you’ve rationalized.

Editor’s note: In the sense of being super careful, we would define “solo” as being out of visual or voice communication with your partners for any significant amount of time. Radios, and clear organization of your group are the solutions.

3. Never stop learning. Most backcountry skiers I meet seem to be very open to a life of learning about their recreation environment. But I do occasionally meet people who simply don’t appear to get it. A little of the examined self can go a long way here. Something new is always there to learn.

2. Do not try to outsmart danger. This is where I think Reardon might have been a bit sophomoric. Outsmarting danger is what we do every time we make decisions as to specific ski lines, if not decidning when to start braking before a sharp curve on an icy road. I think what Reardon was getting at is if you’re up there fiddling around on a high hazard day, digging pits and doing ski cuts then trying to use your humanly limited mental powers to put it all together, you might be asking too much of yourself and your friends. Instead, see # 1 below.

1. Play not to lose. Simple concept. Your backcountry playground provides more than one way to have fun. Try the different rides. That 40 degree starting zone in an avalanche path might make an excellent photo with you as the star, but that 29 degree meadow skip just a few hundred feet to the right might be where you’re playing to win. Take a lesson from a pro skier, they know how to simulate over-the-head powder in nearly any conditions at any slope angle. And when the time is right, hit it (when you do, be up on Reardon’s 5 Tips for Group Psychology.)

Out of all 5, I like Reardon’s idea about rituals the best. For many people, the most important ritual might be a go no-go checklist such as Alp Truth (see video below).

Commenters, what are the rituals that keep you avalanche safe?


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5 Responses to “Avalanche Safety: 5 Tips to Keep You Alive”

  1. Paddy December 8th, 2016 11:28 am

    I particularly like the “play not to lose” rule. It will get you out of doing a lot of dumb things for no real good reason. This also reminds me how much we miss Blase up here in Idaho. You guys are lucky to have him.

  2. Sfotex December 8th, 2016 3:28 pm

    Do not try to outsmart danger. – My take is don’t overestimate your ability and believe that your awesome avys skills will magically make a considerable danger day into a moderate day, etc.. for example ‘Gnar Ripper is totally good to go, I’ll just avoid the shallow parts around those rocks, then sneak over to the trees and then I don’t have to worry about that pesky deep depth hoar’

    vs. Man, it’s sketchy out, let’s go ski mellow meadows .

  3. Matt Kinneu December 9th, 2016 10:06 pm

    Don’t solo? yea right. In all mountain sports solo-ism is part of the game. My best ski efforts were solo. I strongly disagree with #4. It should be replaced with “Don’t ski with more than four in a group.” Oh…and no dogs.

  4. Lou Dawson 2 December 10th, 2016 10:02 am

    Matt, I don’t think Blase is necessarily against solo ski touring, and I’m not either. What we’re doing here is trying to prioritize the factors that play biggest role in whether a person comes home alive or not. Like you, I’ve had some of my best ski mountaineering days while solo, many during my ski Colorado 14ers project when I did some pretty amazing routes, good memories. But I still wouldn’t recommend solo ski touring or ski mountaineering to just anyone, I only think it’s viable if you’ve got really good judgment, are a good no-falls skier, and also are realistic about the risk. In my case as an extreme skier, I was doing most of it before married and before kids, I felt comfortable with it because of my passion as well as it being part of my career, but felt strongly that it wasn’t something I wanted to push on through the years. Lou

  5. UpSki Kevin December 11th, 2016 10:57 pm

    I believe crawling 1/2mile or so in backcountry conditions with one ski & both poles is good training to prepare for a possible outcome of solo skiing.

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