Mountain Skills: When is it OK to go Big?

We see it all the time in the ski movies: people charging big lines in the mountains. It’s inspiring and makes us want to go out there and charge, too. Yet, most of the time we are riding “mini-golf” terrain in our own backyards, wondering when conditions will allow us to hit the bigger lines. There might even be other people going big.

So how do we know when it is safe to ride big, committing lines? It can take all season or even many years to figure out, but start with these simple concepts.

Kim Havell approaching Mt. Moran across Jackson Lake. | Teton Mountains, Wyo. | Tyler Cohen

Kim Havell approaching Mt. Moran across Jackson Lake. | Teton Mountains, Wyo. | [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Pay attention to the Avalanche Report. Every Day.

If you really want to be in tune with backcountry conditions, you need to be immersed in them from the beginning. Read the avy report everyday, whether you are headed into the hills or headed to work. Don’t just look at the danger rating. Read the words the forecaster is choosing to describe the avalanche problem(s) and how the forecast relates to the terrain where you will be traveling.

The term “scary moderate” applies to a situation where reported avy danger might be lower on the rating scale, but consequences in big terrain can be disastrous. You will only find this information by reading the report in depth.

Track weak layers throughout the season. Where are you finding them? How deeply are they buried? Are they transforming over time? Each time you go out you should be doing some homework for future tours. Write down details—little things like probing for depth to big things like a full snow profile—so you can reference your notes later. Technology like the Avanet app can be a great way to keep track of observations and easily share them with your local avalanche center in real time.

Set Goals 

With your favorite riding buddies, pick out the lines you aspire to ride (see “Becoming a Better Ski Partner”). Talk about these lines in depth, even when they are obviously out of condition. Instead of asking, “When it is good to go?” ask, “When is it not safe?” Reframing the question will keep you from being lured by common heuristic traps such as social proof—when other people might think it’s safe enough—and powder fever.

Gain Experience

Taking an avalanche safety course creates a baseline. For bigger objectives you likely need experience with mountaineering techniques, efficient movement, solid communication in your team and decision-making skills. Actively practice and acknowledge these skills even when they seem unnecessary. Start in smaller terrain that is similar to your bigger objectives. Remember, no one becomes an expert by accident.

Get into terrain near your selected line. Keep an eye on your objective and gather experience and information in the same drainage, nearby runs and similar slopes. Ask the questions: Where are the safer areas? Where can we regroup safely? What escape options do we have? What are the consequences of a bad decision?

Sometimes the windows of stability are small and the more familiar you are with an area, the more prepared you will be.

Be Ready

Some of the best powder lines I’ve skied have been in May when underlying conditions are stable and a spring storm brings great powder skiing. Being able to drop big lines with full confidence is much more enjoyable than wondering if you made the right choice halfway through a backcountry mission.

Big lines require more time for preparation and execution with a much smaller margin for error, so be prepared for the worst. What will you do if things go south? What rescue equipment should you bring along? Carrying a beacon, shovel and probe is the bare minimum. How will you get a hurt partner out of the woods? Can you improvise a rescue sled or do you carry a commercial one? What communication devices do you have and how effective are they? How solid are your first aid kit and first aid skills?

Be Patient 

After 20 winters in Crested Butte, I am still waiting on certain lines to become skiable. Snow conditions, proper partners and available time have yet to align perfectly to allow me to ski some of the lines I’ve been eying. Not every mountain can be safely ridden every season. In Colorado, we often have lingering problems with persistent weak layers and basal facets. This can eliminate big terrain as an objective for the entire season. In other years conditions can shape up later in the winter season, in the spring, or even earlier in the winter before slabs have a chance to form. Take photos of your desired terrain early in the season to see where snow piles up and where it melts off. Hiking these areas before they are buried will help you understand the underlying nuances of the terrain and ground cover.

Don’t rush into terrain before you are ready for it or before the terrain is ready for you. A big descent we see in the movies is often the culmination of a team of professional guides, riders and filmmakers using years of experience and a season full of snowpack work to create a 30-second segment. In real life, we need to recognize our own abilities to better manage the snowpack we are handed. This can mean backing off more often than jumping in, getting antsy and even getting skunked. The good news is that even the consolation prize of meadow skipping in powder and the learning process and homework can be a good time.

Steve Banks in an IFMGA/AMGA mountain guide based in Crested Butte, Colo. where he is the Director of Mountain Guide Operations at Irwin Guides. He has been a professional ski patroller, a forecaster and director of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center and is currently an Instructor Team member for the AMGA. 


  1. Great insight; great reminders. A really good summary of requirements for team, preparation and judgment in the back country.

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