Editor’s Note: Backcountry skiing is extremely dangerous! The advice contained in this article is one expert skier’s opinion, and we don’t recommend going out of bounds until you’ve had the proper training and experience with guides.
When we choose to ski in the backcountry, whether we leave a ski area boundary or forgo the lifts all together, it’s imperative that we have a plan. This helps us to avoid, or minimize our exposure to avalanche risk. What is our group’s goal for the day? What terrain have we agreed to avoid?
Most questions can be answered at home, before we leave for the hill. A quick visit to your local avalanche center’s daily bulletin can fill many of the blanks in our planning process. Check out Colorado’s CAIC for example.
Once you’re out in the mountains, this information becomes your guidance by which all decisions are made.
Things change, you say! What if I see something that requires me to rethink my plan? You’re right. A keen observational eye and a willingness to listen to Mother Nature will keep you alive in the mountains. We make backcountry observations in three specific categories, here they are.
1. Recent Avalanche Activity. Have you ever seen Lebron James miss a layup? If you head into avalanche terrain despite having observed recent avalanches in the vicinity, you will be King James of poor decisions. Mom is warning you that there is unstable snow out there and you should heed. This is your layup.
2. Snowpack. If you are willing to listen, the snowpack will tell you when to let it be. It speaks in whoomps and cracks. A “whoomp” is a failure below the surface of the snow. We experience it as a small, distinct, drop of the snow beneath our skis; accompanied by a low rumbling sound, hence the onomatopoeia. You have just triggered a weak layer below you. A shooting crack warns you of a slab on the surface that could fail across an entire mountainside.
3. Weather. The snowpack does not do well with rapid change. Tip the scales too quickly, it gets stressed out and fails. A rapid rise in temperature is often the culprit, especially rising to and above freezing. Another stressor could be a significant snowfall. More than a foot per day will do it. Rain on the snow? Bad news. Wind is often the last straw. Rapid transportation of snow by wind can create a dangerous slab or quickly overload a stressed snowpack. Learn to identify areas that are likely to be wind loaded.
A lack of eye-popping observations in the field does not suggest a green light. Refer back to the advice of your local forecasters in the daily bulletin. Discuss the situation with your partners, then enact a decision that you have confidence in.
A presence of any of these observations, however, should prompt you into making a more conservative decision. Ski lower angled terrain or head back to the ski area. Don’t ignore Mother Nature’s obvious clues!