“If avalanches are the problem, then terrain is the solution.” — Oft-repeated aphorism
Put down the pitchfork and take the price off my head. I’m not advocating you actually, literally, for-real ski without a beacon. No, over the ensuing paragraphs I’m only going to ask you to imagine skiing and riding without your basic avalanche safety equipment.
And why, you ask? Well, read on to find out, but in the meantime let me assure you of two things: one, I’m not above click-bait headlines and two, I’ve never skied backcountry without a beacon.
So, we cool here? Everybody properly equipped and ready to go? Bam, let’s click in and get going …
Solo Skiing and the No-Beacon Day
No exercise I can think of better teaches the concept of exposure than imagining that you’re skiing without a beacon. Solo skiing should achieve a similar effect.
I think we all agree, the easiest way to get smoked in the backcountry is avalanches. Sure, you can implode a knee on a stump, fall into a creek without your water-wings, get popsicle’d on an unplanned bivy in the Canadian cold, but for the most part, our biggest hazard in the backcountry is avalanches.
Avoiding this hazard really means eliminating exposure to it. Don’t want to lose money gambling? Don’t gamble. Not psyched on pancaking after jumping out of a plane? Don’t go skydiving. Eliminate exposure, eliminate the risk. Simple. Common sense.
Again, I’m not telling you to solo-ski and certainly not to ditch your transceiver. I solo occasionally (and even on those days I bring safety gear), so I recognize some of us occasionally do it.
When in the mountains alone, it distills our awareness and focuses our attention, and why? Consciously or unconsciously, we recognize that even a tiny mistake will be far more serious if we’re alone. And if we agree that avalanches are the likeliest way to die in the backcountry, and that our only hope of surviving an avalanche is our team and an effective transceiver search and rescue, then skiing without teammates and a beacon leaves us two options: perfection and/or no-exposure riding.
Newsflash: none of us are perfect, so that leaves eliminating exposure.
The IDEA of the No Beacon Day
I remember several years ago, corresponding with a buddy who’s smarter and more experienced than me. I know, I know, you’re saying: “We’ve read your schtick before, that’s a pretty low bar, dude.”
But this guy has a PhD in snow science, publishes articles filled with numbers and charts, and delivers speeches (to which people actually listen) at avy conferences. We were discussing skiing on a high-danger day and he made the remark, “It’s a no-beacon day.”
I pressed him on the idea and he said, “On a high-danger day, you need to ski as if you’re not wearing a beacon. You just can’t risk skiing in any avalanche terrain.”
Simple. No exposure, no problem.
Think about that for a moment. Not in avalanche terrain? You can’t get avalanched. That solves a lot — though not all — of our problems when we’re strapped to a board or fixed to skis. Sure, hazards still exist, but eliminate exposure to avalanches and we eliminate the chance to get injured, buried, or killed by an avalanche.
Just don’t ski in avalanche terrain. So simple … and yet, so difficult, too.
First off, you better be sure-as-snot you know what is, and what isn’t, avalanche terrain. Are you in it? Connected to it, below it, anywhere near it? How far are avalanches running? Just a little, or full path and carving out new runout zones?
If you’re in the field and wondering whether you’re “in it,” then increase your margin … literally. Just put more distance between you and the questionable terrain. A cornice? Skin 10m farther from it than you think you need to. Crossing a runout? Easy — simply slide 20m into the trees, beyond the trim line and enjoy the shady embrace of old-growth timber.
Imagine skiing without a transceiver, for a sec. No-beacon skiing requires zero exposure. If you can’t be perfect, you better not play the game. You’re no longer worried about likelihood/probability of triggering a slide because you’re not in terrain that could slide. High danger, human-triggered avalanches certain? Fifty centimeters of rock salt at the base of the snowpack? Deep-slab instabilities?! No stress, not your problem. You’re not in avalanche terrain. Not under it, not connected to it. Simple!
Likelihood, Vulnerability, Consequence, Exposure
I use these terms frequently, but let’s rewind and consider them.
Likelihood and probability are interchangeable. How likely or probable is an avalanche? Wow, that is the 63-million-dollar question, eh? Sorry to say, another 20 years in this game and I still won’t have certainty on the matter. Patrollers throw bombs, thousands of skiers track up a slope, that oh-so-confident dude in the skintrack says “can’t happen today,” and none of that delivers 100-percent certainty. Decision-making based primarily on likelihood is a losing ball game, I’m sorry to say.
Vulnerability. I like long walks on the beach and true-life confessions as much as the next sensitive, new-age guy, but here we’re asking how vulnerable are we to avalanches? Pretty damn vulnerable. Wear a helmet, carry a beacon-shovel-probe, even strap on the balloon pack — at best they put a finger on the scale in your favor, but they’re no guarantee of nada. Sure, we use all these tools, but just ’cause your new Audi has airbags in every direction, are you willing to steer into oncoming traffic? We can tweak vulnerability a tiny bit with safety gear, but not very much and not all that reliably.
Imagining skiing without a beacon turns up the dial on vulnerability and therefore focuses us on mitigating hazard by other means (hint: consequences and exposure). So, vulnerability? Dead end here.
Our parents threatened us with consequences, some worse than others. Pull your sister’s hair again, you’re grounded for a month (which, to the eight-year-old brain is tantamount to death). Get sluffed above a cliff, you’re hosed. Consequences matter, so dial them back when you can. Avoid terrain traps, pay attention to the forecasted size of avalanches, and do your best. Remember, though, consequences are hard to estimate and people get killed in tiny avalanches all the time. Don’t bet the farm on estimating consequences.
No, your best and most effective dial to turn back while backcountry skiing is exposure. Are you in, or are you out, of avalanche terrain? And like I said above, skiing solo or (imagining) removing your beacon laser-focuses you on minimizing exposure.
Teaching and Learning
Unfortunately, too many courses and internet-aficionados (see: pit videos!) focus on trying to teach snowpack assessment; that is, estimating likelihood. Great endeavor for long-term learning, but might not be the best use of one’s time as a newer practitioner.
As luck would have it, one of the easier skills to teach a less experienced skier is terrain recognition. Way easier to teach than estimating likelihood of an avalanche. A more effective tool than showing students what to do if they’re avalanched (vulnerability). Simpler than judging consequences. And best of all, 100% effective: are you in, or are you out, of avalanche terrain?
Can you master it in a three-day, level 1? I doubt it, but man, you sure can give a person a great start on using guidebooks, maps (digital and analog), their eyeballs, and clinometers to identify and avoid avalanche terrain. Even snowshoers. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself — flame away, you lovers of the slowshoe!)
I bet you’re pretty good at it already. Vegetation clues of previous avalanches (bent trees, broken branches, flagged trees, no trees, etc)? Slope angle, can you reliably eyeball a slope — and the terrain it’s connected to — and determine if its start zone is below 30 degrees? Can you do it with a clinometer? How about using a slope-angle meter on a paper map to get a general idea of slopes to avoid and/or evaluate in the field?
And if the visibility goes to Hoboken, do you have the sense to dial it way back? Acknowledge that even Wonder Woman can’t judge slope angle in flat light, while looking straight-on? Swallow your pride, bucko, you’re skiing without a beacon and/or a partner, remember?! No exposure and no room for errors!
A good level 1 should introduce a process, incorporate the bulletin, and at least open the door to more learning down the road — but the one skill, I’d argue, more than almost any other, it should absolutely teach, is terrain recognition. Are you in, or are you out of, avalanche terrain?
Here’s a little exercise — next time you read an avalanche accident, go to the bulletin and compare the terrain forecasters identified as hazardous, with the terrain in which the accident occurred. Spoiler: they’re often pretty damn similar if not outright identical. Had the riders simply eliminated exposure to that terrain on that day, they might have avoided the problem.
Knowing how and when to manage exposure is your superpower. Your 100-percent effective body armor and decision-making trump card.
So when to deploy this unstoppable superpower? Everybody has different risk tolerances, so trying to dictate a rule when to eliminate exposure would be downright un-American. Or un-Canadian, or un-wherever you’re reading this. But you get it — you determine your “rules of engagement” for the backcountry. Consider, though, most people get the chop on Moderate and Considerable days.
A better strategy for invoking your superpower might be on those days where uncertainty creeps into your equation: team uncertainty, terrain, avalanche (read: persistent problems), or weather uncertainty. Maybe the best time to pull on the cape is when an intolerable level of uncertainty creeps into your tour.
Ah, indeed, you’ve identified a problem here: the people (read: dudes in their 20s) who most need to learn when to dial it back are the ones least able to acknowledge uncertainty. Sorry, boys, but I was a 20-something dude once, too. Overconfidence was the name of my game, unfortunately.
That’s a topic for another time, but yeah — I concede, acknowledging uncertainty and eliminating exposure don’t come easily for some of us. A functioning team, diligent tour-planning, and reading the bulletin can all help ID uncertainty, but we gotta be listening for it.
I’ll leave it at this — in the backcountry, the consequences of a mistake can be unforgiving and severe. Fatal, even. On days where the avalanche hazard, weather, and/or terrain present too much uncertainty, I’d recommend dialing back or entirely eliminating exposure. Choose an easier tour, simpler terrain, lower consequences, low-to-no exposure.
Stack the deck in your favor. Wear a beacon, tour with competent partners, but ask yourself — if I were alone and naked out here, would I still be skiing where I’m skiing? If the answer is “no,” then ask yourself why you’re there in the first place. The idea of no-beacon, solo-skiing might just save your hide one of these days.
Rob Coppolillo writes and guides from his home base in Chamonix, France. He’s the author of The Ski Guide Manual.
Rob Coppolillo is a mountain guide and writer, based on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound. He’s the author of The Ski Guide Manual.
Now this is the kind of comment I like. I showed it to my wife and she hinted it might be my older sister posting under a nom de plume. Dang it!
Tell your wife your older sister was at it again. Nicely stated Rob. Your older sister could have done with reading this a couple of months ago.
Great article and now I have a name for my mindset in the BC! When I started skiing the Colorado BC in the late 80s my mentors lived by a few simple rules and NO(as in NO way are we skiing that line today) was the number one rule. So having skied many of those early days without an actual beacon and forever skiing with a mindset that focused on the desire to never use my beacon I now have a name for the mindset courtesy of your article! Again, great article and I hope more folks use this mindset so I can read fewer CAIC accident reports each year…
Kevin, this is a bit like growing up in Colorado — you’re forever blessed (cursed?!) with the Rockies/persistent problem mindset. When forgiving snowpacks endure a period of instability, especially an unusual one, we can always revert to our “dear god every slope is going to kill me” mentality and … eliminate exposure! Thanks the words, brudda, appreciated!
Great piece Rob. Here’s to no beacon days.
Thanks man! Headed to Kandersteg to ice climb this weekend, and danger probably inching back towards High up there. No exposure and swinging tools … but I’ll still have a beacon in my pocket just in case! Have a good season—
A good read article entertaining and purposeful. I entered the bc back in 94 in telemark gear with toes locked in and a beacon as some thing to buy after one got a pair of the new Merrell Super Comps. Always had a shovel and probe though. Did so much soloing, because there was no one else to go with. It’s a pretty different animal today, but the mindset is still the best companion. My go to has always been, the old boy scout motto, “Be Prepared.” It says it all and encapsulates fitness, equipment, and respect of mountains. It’s funny but when I am out there and know I am the only one, there is no one else, I never feel alone nor ever have. Low angle meadow skipping is some great fun.
Indeed — that mindset, being able to summon it, the superpower!
Yes! great article. Long live the vulnerable.
Brudddaaaaaaa! I hope your surface hoar layers are meters deep and dormant, and the InfoEx quiet in your neighborhood … stay safe, man!
I think the pic opening the article shows a slope, which even if mellow, went under a major avalanche in November 2015. The avalanche started from the steep face above and ran down almost to the road.
Holy cow! Got a link to images of it?! Wow! I’m not looking at a map…but man, that must be … 4-5km?! Wow. Must’ve been a generous winter and late-spring avalanche?!
I’m hoping to go ski that thing this spring, conditions permitting…..the year that photo was taken you can see just how lean it was! We were a month early….
Recently turned back from a slope I’d never skied before even though I badly wanted to ski it. My husband asked me why I thought it was safe and I couldn’t answer – enough said! Reading your article I realized that if I was by myself I wouldn’t have even considered skiing that slope. Guess I think my husband has superpowers and can save me if needed (he’s good but not that good).
So thanks for giving me a great – and SIMPLE – tool for assessing risk: Would I ski the slope if I was alone?
Great insight, Beth—very cool. I’ve heard of a guide on a course prepping to ski a slope with candidates and at the last minute saying, “Please take your beacon out and turn it off.” Of course, shock and horror … then she asks if everybody still wants to ski … debate and chaos ensues, but the question is: if trauma kills 1/3 of avy fatalities, wearing a beacon shouldn’t change our decision-making one bit! Nor should a balloon pack…
I hope you’re getting some turns somewhere — with a good group, and your near-superhero husband!
Nice read R.C., I work as support staff (chef) for several BC hut/lodge operators. Mindset is often a topic of discussion (also a field in the Infoex reports I sometimes have access to), especially with the clients. Last year I was in one lodge, 130cm in five days… the last pulse of 40cm in ten hours. In the middle of the euphoria inducing nuke was the guide’s after dinner talk… “Tomorrow we are skiing in “punter’s haven”, that’s it. Everyone enjoy a sleep in, skins in pack for 09:00.” We set a record for number of laps in that ‘haven’, each lap about 150m in vert.
At the end of the day one of the more ‘aggressive’ clients (in ski ability, strength etc) wondered out loud why we didn’t venture into other similar terrain. The guide’s quick answer was “so we can ski tomorrow”. That day in “punter’s” was truly a no-beacon day, mellow slopes in 300 y/o timber, no paths to cross, no terrain traps, no huge overhead to entrain and destroy…
The following day the guide kept it tight, 90% ‘no-beacon’ choices and routes, and so the week went, slowly stepping out… cause the last thing the guide or I want to do is have to rip open our packs to pull out probe and shovel…
I thanked the guide for taking the difficult stance on the first day of reining in the entire program… the greater good was served, no one had to use their beacon, and we all were skiing the net day.
Those frickin’ Canadians do a good job! Sounds like s/he went from “stepping back” to cautiously “stepping out”….mindsets! That’d be worth an article on its own — what’s your mindset on the day? I know Roger Atkins and Bruce Kay have toyed with the idea of trying to adapt strategic mindset for recreational users — curious where that project stands at the moment. But you’re totally onto something there — even for recreationalists who aren’t at a ski operation or working, it’s important to just leave the trailhead with a mindset of sorts: are we on the “defensive,” are we “pushing it a bit today”? What do conditions/team allow?
How’s your snowpack up north? Sounds like Colorado is getting much-needed snow. The Alps just came thru a huge storm cycle, bit of a warm-up, now a bit of precip tonight. We’re trying to ice climb tomorrow, though — not too much, let’s hope! Have a good season!
Season has been pretty darn sweet in the Selkirks and Monashees! All of us have the Nov 05ish crust on our minds, and also a mid Dec crust. High and dry for a week now, but fingers crossed for a good pulse to crush those evil crystals in development…
My heart and empathy have definitely being going south of 49º, the PWL they are dealing with has been atrocious…
I recently was plating with the AIARE decision making circle, and added my own extra stages, basically enforcing all day observations and decision making, (analyze twice, ski once) in my mind the circle needs to be reworked every three hours, or based on terrain, when conditions are shifting. Things rarely improve during the day. At best your worst concerns are tamped down.
This season is the first where I have really had the chance to sit in on the twice a day meetings with the guides, and tune into all the thought and discussion that happens. I was pleasantly surprised by the ‘mindset’ field in the reports. It had been a ‘shadow’ method I used personally, but that professional element had me elevate it to part of my expressed methods. My daughter and I used that as a tool every day/all day during our trip to the Esplanades over the solstice.
There is also other studies in progress about recreational decision making in our small part of the world. One involved social media use in influencing decisions. The other was a GPS and image survey (pin the spot where you made a significant decision, and why). Sorry, I am light on details…
Critical mindset… let us all talk about it!
That’s a nice break from the monochromatic “never go solo” dogma too oft heard and repeated There’s a lot to be learned in solo excursions and this article elucidates them well. Done with thought, observation and humility going solo can bring a lot to any group.
“Done with thought, observation and humility, going solo can bring a lot to any group.”
Wait, is this a Zen riddle?!
Joking aside — agreed! Going solo might not be for everybody and no stress … but it does offer learning opportunities.
ha! yes, zen, but also in a purely practical sense… though I would edit it to read :
“When done with thought, observation and humility, going solo can bring a lot to any group.”
[Edited to eliminate any misunderstanding due to writing-like-I-talk, i.e. ‘Done’ as in doing, not as in finished forever]
Some of my favorite partners solo periodically (as do I). I think it helps solidify the independence of thought, observation (and articulation) that everyone in any backcountry touring group should be participating in.
Just trying to bring home the point that solo and group are not necessarily mutually exclusive; they can in fact be mutually beneficial.
Same wavelength as your article…
I’m with you, just digging on the seeming contradiction of solo skiing improving group experience—indeed, same wavelength! Great thoughts….
Nice read. Solo is great if you live remote. If not remote, it’s a necessity if your love skiing. Mix it up. Solo and with others. Solo always fits yours schedule, not others. If your on a busy trail solo, you’re not really solo. Solo is no one around too physically help you. I would say I skied solo 75-80% of my time in Valdez and did so safely. Been with people in Mts of course, but solo BC is at another level….technically and should be viewed that way. It’s also addictive once you cross the line a few times.
Pro or rec, most if not all avalanche incidents occur because OBVIOUS clues or a clue were ignored. The list of obvious clues is short.
I tried skiing a few time without my beacon OFF to see if it would change my approach. After about a 100 yards I felt uncomfortable and unwise so I turned it back ON. I do recall forgetting my beacon once and after much hesitancy, went ahead and skied complicated terrain, because I had tested the zone the day before. When your solo, your beacon is basically for body recovery, not rescue.
Your experience is the same as mine — “no beacon skiing” is an interesting intellectual exercise, but yeah, if you actually do it, at a certain point you have the WTF moment and turn it back on. Interesting insight, though!
Thanks for a great read and mental excercise. As a father of two small kids, my risk acceptance has plummeted since my first kid, and for the same reason I also tour more by myself than with friends. Dawn patrols and late night missions planned at five minutes notice are hard to coordinate, it turns out. So this mentality, albeit not as precise as you’ve elegantly written it, has been my go-to for these last seven years. This, and the mindset of actively looking for reasons to turn around rather than reasons for continuing when planning or moving on a route in avy terrain, are both intuitive ways to change the culture amongst backcountry skiers. It certainly has amongst my group of friends and backcountry partners.
Mindset! I’ve been chewing on this concept a lot lately and lots of people are working on it. We end up crafting our own mindsets, whether we know it or not…interesting hearing yours, Sebastian. Great that you’re getting out and doing it with less exposure/hazard … keep on it!
In France and Switzerland we are taught a similar approach called Munter’s reduction : your input is the local avalanche risk, based on that you have to adapt your ride to minimize the exposure to that risk. For exemple : limiting your ride to under 30° slopes, avoiding specifing orientations, group spacing.
I totally agree with your analysis : snowpack assessment is really hard while slope and terrain are quite easy to apply.
I’ve been looking at this Munter Method, and the 3×3, also — interesting to see with North American eyes. Tricky conditions right now in France and Switzerland — stay safe, Antoine! RC
Thanks for this super relevant article. Focus on finding the safe terrain as opposed to avoiding and micro managing hazards is a mindset that will benefit many backcountry (and front country for that matter) users. Excellent.
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