Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
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?