Dozen Tips for ULTRA Avalanche Safe Backcountry Ski Touring

Post by blogger | October 6, 2017      
During extreme avalanche danger the lower portion of the approach trail is crossed by quite a few avalanches.

An approach trail may appear safe, but may not be. Evaluation requires study of sources such as guidebooks and maps, as well as a modicum of ability in identifying avalanche slopes that may not be entirely obvious. Lower portion of route to Opa hut, Colorado.

(We’re headed over to the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop today, should be a variety of excellent blog fodder. This post seemed appropriate. Note this list is intended for newcommers to the sport. Once you gain experience, some of these concepts might exceed the norm in terms of conservative safety behavior. This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry. Check out their selection of just about everything for backcountry ski touring.)

1. No matter how uneducated you choose to remain, you MUST learn how to identify terrain where avalanches could occur, avalanche “slopes” and “paths.” Clues are slope angle, vegetation patterns, guidebook tips, lack of ski tracks in otherwise tracked terrain, debris from previous slides, community knowledge and more. As part of this, learn that the large spectacular avalanches are not your only threat — plenty of deaths occur in small slides. Make a game of it while you’re driving and while you’re on the approach to a zone. Most people quickly learn this skill, but it’s not in our DNA, work is required.

2. Unless you’re educated in avalanche safety protocols such as terrain recognition, only tour during days with Moderate to Low reported overall hazard levels. It’s entirely possible to ski during high hazard days provided you use low hazard terrain without threats from above — but doing so requires quite a bit of expertise. For the novice, those are usually days for the resort, perhaps both uphill and down.

3. Carry an inclinometer and use it frequently. Inclinometer content.

4. Ski where others frequently ski. General guideline for slopes at or over about 35 degrees: ten sets of tracks minimum before you hit it (for “normal” continental snow climate such as Colorado or Utah, does not apply during situations such as deep persistent slab. Don’t know what that is? Time for an avalanche safety course.)

5. Learn to measure-judge alpha angle, to avoid exposing yourself to hazards above. A number of tragic accidents have occurred when uneducated snow sliders thought they were in a safe zone, only to be taken out by a slide from above their position.

Avalanche slope angle data from Montana is useful.

Avalanche slope angle data from Montana is useful. Excellent article here. Click to enlarge.

6. Avoid skiing in situations with other groups above you, and nearly always ski downhill one person at a time no matter how safe you guess the situation to be (times to gang ski: exceptionally low angled slopes during low hazard days, or springtime firm corn snow). Consider the uptrack as well, be sure to spread out if you’re in any situation with even a small amount of avalanche potential. Bluntly put: There is often nothing stupider or more unnecessary than multiple individuals being caught in the same avalanche on the uptrack. Sure, sometimes you need to bunch up, and traveling together enjoying a nice conversation are part and parcel to a nice day in the alpine — but do so with thought to more than sharing your political wisdom or relationship woes.

7. Practice a mellow, conservative attitude. When a choice is to be made, always take the more cautious version. Aristotle said “Quality is not an act, it is a habit.” Your effective safety attitude is a habit, developing habits takes time. Perhaps compare to your style of driving. Do you dart around like a NASCAR pilot when you’re in traffic? Perhaps you’ve got work to do. Is your highway style more akin to having a carpool of toddlers? You might already be mellow enough.

8. Everyone carries full avalanche safety gear: beacon; shovel ;probe. For local sojourns, beacons are switched on at home, turned off at home. Concept here is not only do beacons directly save lives, but acquiring and carrying the gear switches your mindfulness to “avalanche awareness.” (Further, you may become involved in a rescue, perhaps in terrain with more danger.) It may feel odd at first to haul full kit avy gear on super-mellow terrain. Put your pride aside and carry the gear. By the same token, don’t weigh yourself down with an embarrassing overabundance of safety gear. If your goal is mellow super-safe skiing, running around with an avalung stuck in your mouth is probably overkill. A small unobtrusive airbag backpack can be reassuring but is also likely unnecessary, that is unless you’re planning on gradually ratcheting up your goals as your skills increase. Just remember that avoiding being caught in an avalanche is your objective — trying to mitigate the consequences of a ride, with technology such as airbags, is an unequal contest.

9. Memorize the Stone Tablets of Avalanche Safety.

10. Curate your group size and companionship. Avoid individuals who tend to change the game plan in mid stride (risk escalation), and avoid large groups. Two or three people is ideal. Never split up your group.

11. Beware of placing faith in the judgment or skills of individuals who only surpass your experience level by a small amount. Likewise, beware the “expert!” who is actually not as seasoned as you’ve been led to believe. Consider hiring guides if at all in doubt of your group’s ability to handle a goal.

12. Enjoy a skiing style that involves “milking” lower pitched slopes for turns and fun. Doing so isn’t necessarily one specific style of skiing, it’s more about attitude. It’s about enjoying what you have for what you and your gear can get out of it. Ideas: Challenge your group on how precisely they can spoon tracks. Multiple laps, personal bests with daily vertical feet. Pre-planned lunch feasts at the top of the slope (bring a fondue cooker or espresso Bialetti?). Photography hero sessions. Build a kicker. Dig a few avalanche evaluation snow pits. Go for a peak summit via a safe ridge route and return the same way, perhaps leaving your skis at a lower staging area.

All you seasoned folks out there, if you got this far, critique appreciated as well as additions that could help our novice friends.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


18 Responses to “Dozen Tips for ULTRA Avalanche Safe Backcountry Ski Touring”

  1. Slim October 6th, 2017 8:17 am

    Hi Lou,

    Thanks for putting this up.
    Let me explain where my request came from. I started (resort)alpine skiing a few years ago. I am having a blast with it. But, I come from a Nordic skiing, climbing, backpacking, mtb-ing background, so I get bored with the constraints of a resort, and the lack of wildness. I prefer to travel more, experience more varied snow, wild country etc. I also have several friends who ski tour.
    Therefor, I would love to start backcountry skiing. Seemed like the best place to start would be an Alanche 1 course.
    When I asked a (advanced resort skier) friend if he would be interested in joining me, he said he wasn’t sure f the risks of backcountry skiing weren’t too high.

    I have read a fair bit here (and Trembers book), about Avalanche avoidance, but the safety posts always focus on the process, and things to avoid.

    What I wanted to know, from experienced North American skiers, was:
    If you take the safety aspects very seriously, what style of tours can you do, what does it look like in practice?
    In other words, point 12 is what I was asking about: not, ‘how to stay safe’ but: If you are staying safe, what do you end up skiing?


  2. Rudi October 6th, 2017 9:21 am

    @Slim, I know this will ruffle some feathers, but I think you can ski your entire life in the backcountry and not be at much risk of avalanche at all. You need to grab an inclinometer ( #3) and measure all your slopes if they are less than 30 degrees you are very likely to be safe from avalanches except in very strange conditions which the local avalanche forecast that you read every day all winter will most certainly mention. And as far as the exact type of terrain, you can ski all sorts of features from glades, to high alpine bowls and never exceed 30 degrees. I do think you will find though that after your avy 1 course and a few years of skiing your comfort with deciding what will and will not slide will increase and you will start skiing all sorts of slopes and angles during times of low danger. Now for a disclaimer….just because the slope average is 30 does not mean that the whole slope is 30 and you must always be on guard for steeper rollovers or terrain above you which you could propagate fractures into. Finally, Its going to be tough to get anyone on here to commit to saying any one piece of terrain is safe all the time, but slope angle is perhaps the most binary method of determining slope stability.

  3. atfred October 6th, 2017 9:58 am

    Well said, Rudi – monitor the avalanche report, and stay below 30 degrees till spring.

    I would only add that there are other hazards in the backcountry, arguably more likely than avalanche, such as trees, rocks, crusty snow, weather, etc – again, a conservative approach is wise, no ski patrol out there, and cell phones often don’t work.

  4. Matt Kinney October 6th, 2017 10:01 am

    You are spot on putting slope angle identification at the top of the list. Your inclinometer should be as handy as your beacon. Even if you take L1, this should still be your first priority to master. Chappelle always emphasized the first question to ask yourself and partners was “Is the slope capable of sliding?. Perhaps It would be good to print that phrase on one’s ski tips.

    Once you’ve mapped an area, then you don’t have to be as obsessed about it. But many areas maps (and guide books) could do a better job of identifying angles along a route. You have to know exactly for the big hero slopes and the dinky ones as well. Guide books get you there, but you still have to do the dirty work of angle measurements if new to an area.

    Lou,,,Might want to think about adding something about “recognizing terrain traps”.

  5. wtofd October 6th, 2017 10:22 am

    A decent image of a common terrain trap is here:

    To answer your question of “what do you end up skiing?”
    You end up skiing ridgelines, and mellow bowls with no cliffs or trees below or low angle glades and meadows. In this way you can start to limit your exposure to damage after a slide.
    Ask yourself, if I fall or am swept up, will I eventually glide to a stop, or will I be forced into exposed rocks/trees, pushed off a cliff, or buried in concavities?
    Reducing your risk by skiing low angle turf AND by avoiding terrain traps below you AND second-party damage above you.
    As somebody above has said, you need to consider the steepest angle above you as well as what you’re skiing.
    You should take Avy1.

  6. benwls October 6th, 2017 12:52 pm with the caltopo slope angle overlay is good for getting a quick sense of slope angle. It is not perfect, but when you compare this with slope angle readings with an inclinometer it helps build/refresh the our ability to “sense” slope angle. Here is an example:

    click on “Overlays” then “Add Overlay” to see what the colors mean.

  7. Kevin Woolley October 6th, 2017 6:17 pm

    Apologies in advance for the length of my reply, but this query hits right where I like to ski.

    I practice this same style (safety, mellow skiing, no avy danger) and have lots of fun. For me, it’s about backcountry travel and beautiful scenery, if the skiing is also fun, that’s a bonus. Snow conditions are so variable that you often ski a whole lot of non-ideal snow on any trip, especially above tree line, but you really can’t tell until you go, that’s part of the fun.

    Hillmaps with the satellite or Caltopo base map and slope overlay is what I always use to plan my trips (see the prior post). If you are not in the “color” on that map, you are almost always safe, as the colors start at 27 degrees. The map is very accurate for terrain features that are more than about 100 feet in size. You can miss very small steeper slopes of course. The user interface takes some work, but this is the very best map planning tool I have found.

    Avoid anything steeper than 30 degrees in the winter as a general rule (for Continental snowpack, make it 25 degrees and you are safe essentially always). Learn the concept of “alpha angle” as outlined in Wildsnow archives to avoid gulleys and areas underneath steeper slopes.

    Try not to be in a place where a fall could sweep you over a cliff. Avoid icy slopes unless you know how to self arrest and have the tools to do it (they aren’t fun to ski anyway). Map your route before you go. Get an inclinometer and use it. Check slope angles in the summer when hiking or biking, or when skiing at the resort, you’ll quickly get a feel for what is 30 degrees. I find this to be a great way to scout out places to ski, and always imagine what a spot would be like with snow.

    If you are in Colorado, review the excellent CAIC website daily (Utah’s site is also excellent, I don’t know the other states as well).

    There are other excellent websites with info for most popular places to ski that can help you find good places to ski. There are all kinds of other blogs for all parts of the world if you dig around a little bit. There are also excellent guidebooks for many popular regions.

    I bookmark the media gallery and the weather station pages from the CAIC on my phone, and also have the CAIC app. I review the avy forecast, weather, and wind for my chosen zone almost daily from December to June, and review the CAIC media gallery several times a week to see snow analysis and observations from the experts, and also to see pictures of every avalanche in the state, especially the ones in areas that I know. You will probably be very surprised by how dangerous a small steep slope can be if you are just below it in a terrain trap. If you look at every avalanche every season, you will not be cavalier with your choice of terrain. I also review the snow forecast from OpenSnow, which is outstanding for the state of Colorado, and the NOAA forecast when applicable.

    Don’t ski with people who don’t share your caution, agree with your friends before the trip what your limits are, and do not deviate from them. Don’t ski somewhere just because you see ski or snowmobile tracks, those aren’t “safety marks”.

    In a spring snowpack, you can safely ski steeper lines, but you must watch the weather carefully and plan for days with overnight freeze and ideally, sun in the morning so you are not stuck skiing ice. You want to be done before the snowpack starts to be mushy and non-supportive (your boots sink several inches into the snow and you see big rollers on steep slopes). Usually about that time it’s really hot and you are pretty much done anyway.


  8. Lou Dawson 2 October 7th, 2017 9:13 am

    Thanks so much for this Kevin! In particular, I appreciate hearing about someone using alpha angle as part of their safety package.

    For everyone, here is a WildSnow site search for the term:

  9. Jim Milstein October 7th, 2017 6:08 pm

    Occasional alpha angle checker here! Mostly use it when deciding whether a spot is a safe place to wait for companion skiers or when ascending below other skiers descending. Reading about alpha angle here on WildSnow is what got me interested in the idea.

  10. Lou Dawson 2 October 7th, 2017 6:15 pm

    In my experience, after doing alpha angle with inclinometer as a self teaching device, one can move to judging the slopes without the inclinometer — at least in most cases. But indeed, in marginal situations having the instrument is incredibly useful. It’s also good to check yourself once in a while. Too many people get lanched while standing and waiting for their friends.

  11. wtofd October 7th, 2017 7:00 pm

    Could you please provide a concise definition of alpha angle?

  12. Lou2 October 7th, 2017 7:28 pm

    Doesn’t that link to blog post do the job? Here it is again:

    Alpha Angle of an existing avalanche is the angle of an imaginary line connecting toe of deposition to the starting zone fracture. In the case of avalanche safety, it’s an average angle derived from the statistical analysis of previous avalanches in a given geographical region and snow climate, this derived alpha angle is then used to predict how far an avalanche can run on a given path, based on plotting the same angle and thus deriving the avalanche stopping point at the base of the avalanche slope. The concept is incredibly important to things such as land use planning, for example locating a building site in proximity to an avalanche path.

    FYI, the beta angle, in my recollection, is the average angle of the actual avalanche path, not including the runout. It is specifically measured from the point lower on the path where the angle reduces to 10 degrees, up to the starting zone.


  13. Hacksaw October 8th, 2017 4:07 pm

    I didn’t see you at CSAW Lou. What happened?

  14. Lou Dawson 2 October 8th, 2017 4:45 pm

    Hi Hacksaw, we were there, low profile. Good interesting presentations! Lou

  15. wtofd October 9th, 2017 7:49 am

    Lou2, thanks for the definition.

  16. Lou Dawson 2 October 9th, 2017 8:09 am

    I could have done better… trying to keep it brief. Is the blog post not descriptive enough, or simply too lengthy?

  17. wtofd October 9th, 2017 11:06 am

    Lou, the writing was not clear. From this link I count to the middle of the 4th paragraph before you almost define it. You’re providing a great service to all of us by introducing this topic; I just wanted an agreed upon definition so we could all benefit from the discussion.

    In other words, the post is descriptive enough and the length is fine, but it assumes working knowledge of the concept. If you don’t know what alpha angle is, you have to wade through three paragraphs and then link the end of the fourth paragraph’s first sentence and the beginning of the second. That’s all.

    Thanks again.

  18. Lou Dawson 2 October 9th, 2017 11:11 am

    Thanks Wtofd, appreciate the feedback, I’ll get in there and attempt to improve. I most certainly should have led off with a simple definition of the concept. At least in the second graf or so, after an intro… Lou

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