MOUNTAIN SKILLS: TIPS FOR CLEAR COMMUNICATION

Early last winter I was skiing some sheltered powder on a treed slope near Teton Pass in a group of three experienced backcountry skiers. We assessed the snow, discussed safe zones, and dug a quick, hasty pit to confirm prior observations. Feeling good about the slope, the first skier dropped in and made a quick cut across a small chute in the trees. Nothing moved, and the skier disappeared down the slope and out of sight. My girlfriend and I were left at the top, and we leapfrogged down the slope searching for the cleanest alleys through the trees. In the runout, we were surprised to see that our friend was nowhere to be seen.

When our partner skied out the bottom of the slope, I was in the midst of preparing to race back up to pull him out of a tree-well. Lucky for my lungs, I didn’t have to do that. I asked, “Where did you go?” And of course my partner responded, “Where did you go?” We were afforded a happy ending, but it was a good learning experience for everyone involved.

Communication is a funny thing. It’s so simple, yet we frequently make assumptions that lead to miscommunications like last winter’s Teton mishap. We did everything right, but didn’t discuss how—if at all—we were going to communicate. Standing at the bottom of the 1500-foot pitch in a small bowl with little wind, I was astounded that my friend couldn’t hear me yelling.

No matter what kind of terrain I am in, knowing where my partners are at all times—either visually or verbally—could be the difference between life and death in a rescue situation. I am the only reliable rescuer for my partners, so being spatially aware at all times and communicating effectively is imperative. Here are a few steps to help you and your partners communicate more successfully. 

Have a plan before you leave in the morning. | Photo: Adam Howard

Have a communication strategy before leaving in the morning. | Photo: Adam Howard

TOOLS FOR TALK

Two-way radios are great for staying in verbal communication at all times. They are especially useful for warning fellow skiers of an avalanche and hidden terrain features. Radios are also great for guiding your buddies to better snow. The challenge with two-way radios is that batteries can lose power rapidly with heavy use or cold temperatures. To mitigate this issue, make sure to have batteries fully charged and bring back-ups in your pack. Choose and test a channel/sub-channel at the beginning of the day so that everyone is on the same wavelength.

Binoculars can be extremely useful in determining what or who lies ahead in bigger alpine terrain. A closer look at a suspected safe zone could prove that it’s really not that safe after all. Binoculars are also helpful in identifying snow textures and pinpointing areas of concern—smooth slab, wind affect or shallow crevasse bridges—and locating the best ski conditions on a specific slope.

BE AWARE IN THE FIELD

If you’re in the mood to zone out and listen to music, the lifts are the place to be. The backcountry isn’t the place to tune out. Spatial awareness is the most important tool you can bring with you on an excursion. The mountains have a story to tell and observing and listening to their story will give you more information than a snowpit on some days.

Be fully aware of your location on the slope, where your partners are and where other groups in the area might be traveling. Always keep in mind that you need to be in a position to rescue your partners should something go wrong. Communication is the puzzle piece that keeps the game of leapfrog together. Not being able to convey a message to other group members can be consequential in the mountains.

BOTTOM LINE

Communication in mountain environments takes planning. Before heading into avalanche terrain, your group should have a strategy for how to communicate throughout the day. Continue to amend that plan based on specific ascents and descents. In complex terrain, things get a bit more difficult and you may want to employ some of the tools listed above to help you stay safe and make the most of your day. Creating a mental map of where you and your partners are in relation to known hazards will help you remain in a good position for a potential rescue. Remember, the biggest safety tool you can bring with you into the mountains is heightened awareness any time you step into avalanche terrain.

Zach Berman is a lead guide for Alaska Heliskiing in Haines, Alaska and teaches avalanche courses for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center & American Avalanche Institute. When he’s not teaching or guiding, Zach searches for pow stashes around Southwest Montana.

Comments

  1. Plain old metal or plastic whistles are the best and no power needed. Determine your signals before hand. For example, 1 whistle when good at the bottom. 2 whistles if there is trouble, and no whistle partner in trouble.

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