I was glad to see Liftopia’s recent post on the Top 5 Backcountry Spots in the Lower 48. As a big fan of Liftopia, and an even bigger fan of backcountry ski touring, I see the potential in recognizing ski resorts’ out of bounds potential that’s accessible with a lift ticket (or with your own two legs).
However, when you venture outside of the ski area boundary, you alone are responsible for your own safety. No avalanche mitigation. No Danger Cliff signs or rope closures…skiing at its purest, it’s great! Therefore, one must be educated and equipped to ski in the backcountry. Today I’ll offer a few recommendations as to what rescue gear is essential to ski out of the gates or onto the skin track.
Mandatory. You or your partner might as well be considered a needle in a haystack if buried without one. Technology has improved so rapidly in the last decade that beacon searches are now considered one of the faster phases of companion rescue. Important features to look for when choosing a beacon include a digital processor and three antennas. This will make for an easier and more efficient search process.
Beacons are expensive and newcomers often choose a used option to save money. Not the worst idea ever, but most manufacturers recommend replacing your beacon after approximately five years of use. If you choose this route, be sure to send your beacon back to the company for inspection and upgrade hardware/software if necessary.
Despite the wealth of available technology, the best beacon is the one that you know how to use well. Putting a beacon on does not make you a safe backcountry skier. Everyone from rookie to pro must practice regularly, so if the time comes to use it, your search technique is an automatic response.
You’ve located the victim’s approximate location with the beacon, now where do you begin digging? A pinpoint location with your probe is critical. Your probe should be 2.5-3.5 meters long and have a locking mechanism that is fast and easy to secure with gloves on. Carbon is lighter, but more likely to break in frozen debris.
The latest research proves this to be the most time-consuming phase of companion rescue. The average burial puts the victim just over 1 meter deep. This translates to the rescuer(s) needing to move 1-1.5 metric tons of snow! You need a shovel that can move a lot of snow and is durable enough to chop up hard chunks of avalanche debris. Key features include a large, metal blade, an extendable handle, and the ability to be stowed securely inside your pack. I prefer the Backcountry Access Arsenal series as they are super strong and include a snow saw that stows inside the handle.
Now you own the Holy Trinity of avalanche rescue gear. What’s next? A couple of additional items worth mentioning are the Avalung and the Backcountry Access Float airbag pack (shown below). The Avalung is a Black Diamond product, available independently or built into a pack. It is designed to help you maximize available oxygen while buried in an avalanche. Airbag packs work on the “Brazil Nut” theory. This states that a larger object is likely to stay on top of smaller objects when shaken, like a bowl of party nuts (or you, in an avalanche). Success rates are high with both products and they are recommended as additions to your backcountry kit.
Remember, avalanche rescue equipment is there for when everything else goes wrong. The idea is to avoid triggering avalanches in the first place. Take an avalanche course with your partners. Doing this will help you learn to recognize when and where to travel safely in the backcountry. You’ll also receive some great training on how to practice for companion rescue. AIARE courses are taught nationwide and provide a great progression of material from beginner to professional.
Have a fun and safe winter on the slopes!