I like to approach backcountry skiing like I approach a science experiment: I take time to plan before doing the experiment; I develop a hypothesis about what is going to happen when I perform my experiment; I conduct the experiment. And then I reflect on my experiment and learn from it.
Last Sunday, 600 people packed into a conference room at Seattle’s University of Washington for a full day of education and insight at the revamped Northwest Snow & Avalanche Workshop (NSAW). Organized and hosted this year by the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC), NSAW gathered 10 presenters, from guides and avalanche educators to paramedics and a behavioral psychologist, to discuss the latest in safety, science and decision making.
My good friend Jamie Week describes the importance of communication in the backcountry like this: “Inbounds at the ski area, skiing and riding is all about me. It’s about finding the best lines and the best snow. Once you leave the resort and enter the backcountry, it’s a team sport. It’s no longer about me, me, me. It’s about teamwork and team safety.”
Two winters ago, a party of self-described expert skiers and snowboarders exited a ski area to center punch a very steep and committing untracked bowl of almost thigh-deep powder. It was bluebird, and the stoke was high. Most of the party had been through a Level 1 avalanche class; they had checked the forecast—Moderate—dug a pit and made a plan to ski one at a time. Then, they watched with horror as the first skier threw in a ski cut that triggered an avalanche two- to four-feet deep and 600-feet wide.
Backcountry skiers and riders have been taught to dig pits for years, but the elephant in the avalanche education room has always been what role they play in your decision making. All too frequently we use them judge whether or not a slope is safe to ski—what do you expect when they’re often called “stability tests?” These tests, however, have serious limitations—both in the accuracy of their results and their interpretation—and, when applied incorrectly, can cause more harm than good.
Avalanche forecast centers do a great job informing backcountry travelers about current conditions, weather patterns and the avalanche danger. In fact, when you start digging, there is a huge amount of information on an avalanche forecast center’s website. But to get the most out of the forecast and prioritize information, don’t just stop at the danger rating—use the forecast center’s site as a resource regarding past, current and future conditions.
The annual Spring Mountaineering Course is taught at Icefall Lodge by owner Larry Dolecki, a certified IFMGA mountain guide of more than 20 years who built his ski touring lodge near the western border of Banff National Park in 2005. “This should be a great week in the mountains, filled with lots of learning and great lines,” Dolecki wrote in the course intro packet. It certainly was.
In early December 2013, Aaron Rice, a busboy at Alta’s Rustler Lodge, and friend Joe Campanelli were touring in Grizzly Gulch in Alta, Utah’s backcountry when they noticed an old human-triggered slide across a gully. They stopped to take pictures to submit to the Utah Avalanche Center when they were quickly caught up in a […]
Trusted partners add life-saving value to a tour, from additional eyes looking for instability to providing wisecracks and nips of whiskey. And while it’s essential to make sure your partner is attuned to you and the mountains, relationships go both ways. Here’s a list of tips and suggestions to help you uphold safety and stoke within your group on your next tour.