“One can never be bored by powder skiing because it is a special gift of the relationship between earth and sky. It only comes in sufficient amounts in particular places, at certain times on this earth; it lasts only a limited amount of time before sun and wind changes it.”
Backcountry skiing is an aspect of the sport that is growing in popularity and it’s easy to see why! It embodies the spirit of exploration and alpine travel. It can be dangerous, but with the right equipment, attitude, and best practices, it can be a wonderful lifelong sport. I love backcountry skiing because of the simple movement and the ability to transport myself uphill under the power of my own feet.
It can seem overwhelming to get into, but once you understand the rescue equipment and develop a routine, you’ll feel more comfortable. It’s all about having a checklist and a process to make sure you don’t forget crucial equipment. I like to think of myself as a pilot and have layers of redundancy built into my safety measures. As a pilot, a mistake can be fatal, and your mistakes can put others at risk. It takes training and constant vigilance.
An example of this: I never go backcountry skiing without my avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel. At the trailhead, I always do a beacon check to make sure my beacon and my partner’s beacons are turned on and functioning. This is a safety step I never forget.
Checking beacons at the trailhead is an important step because it starts the day with everyone on the same page knowing that safety is the first priority. With safety equipment comes the responsibility of knowing how to use it. Before heading into the backcountry, make sure you educate yourself on the dangers of avalanche travel. Start by taking a course, hiring a guide, or finding a mentor. A great place to start is by watching the “Know Before You Go” series.
One of the mistakes I made early on in my career was not investing in light equipment. If you’re planning to tour from trailheads vs. sidecountry (from the gates of the resort), I recommend going with lighter equipment. When you’re skiing in the backcountry, you spend the vast majority of your time on the uphill. Lighter equipment means you’ll have gas left in the tank for the skiing on the way down and will be keen to make another lap.
It’s crucial to remember that there is no ski patrol to call in the backcountry if you need a rescue. There is no sled at the top of the chairlift to whisk you away to safety and oftentimes in inclement weather, helicopter rescues aren’t possible. For that reason, it’s important to adjust your speed, aggressiveness, and risk tolerance. Think twice about the consequences of hucking that big cliff. Adjusting your attitude and expectations will ensure a lifelong backcountry ski career.
It can seem like a big upfront investment, and quality gear is, but once you realize you don’t have to wait in lift lines, the investment pays off. Instead of buying lift tickets or season passes, you make an investment in safety and your own equipment.
Layering for backcountry skiing is another challenge. Too warm and you’ll sweat on the way up. Too cold and you’ll freeze. I prefer to bring several lighter layers starting with base layers and building on top of that so I can fine-tune to match the temperature and conditions. It’s also critical to check the weather and the avalanche forecast before beginning the day so you have an idea of what to expect.
ACRONYMS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER
My two favorite takeaways are easy to remember acronyms. ALPTRUTH is an acronym that highlights clues to look out for in the backcountry. 92% of all avalanche accidents happen when three or more of these things are present. The other acronym I always use is FACETS. While ALPTRUTH addresses snow conditions, FACETS addresses human factors that contribute to avalanche accidents. What I’ve seen from over a decade of backcountry skiing is that snow and avalanches don’t care how experienced you are. Often, very experienced teams make a mistake from one of these human factors.
|Avalanches in the area in the last 48 hours. (pay attention to your surroundings from the minute and always look for signs of avalanches)
|Loading by snow, wind, or rain in the last 48 hours.
|Paths, avalanche paths (are you traveling through an avalanche path? Look for signs)
|Terrain traps (like gullies, cliffs or forest)
|Rating – if the rating is considerable or higher in the current avalanche forecast, there’s an automatic red flag.
|Rating – Unstable snow – watch out for collapsing, cracking or a whoomph sound
|Thaw instability, a recent warming of the snow surface.
|Familiarity. We tend to become more complacent when we know the terrain well, especially when we are experts.
|Acceptance – Are you trying to show off to members of your group, impress someone, be accepted, or get the shot?
|Commitment. How committed are you to your goal for the day? Remember, the mountains will always be there, and you can come back when conditions are better unless you’re dead. It’s always good to have a plan B, C, D, E – all the way to X!
|Expert halo. Is there a member of your team who has more experienced and you are defaulting decisions to? Always be willing to question the decision-making process and speak up if you feel uncertain, even if you’re a beginner.
|Tracks or Scarcity –Do you want to be the first one to get fresh tracks? Do you feel that there’s a sense of scarcity? Trying to race to be the first one to drop in can cause us to rush and make poor decisions.
|Social Facilitation or Social Proof– Research shows that when skilled parties met other people in the backcountry, they were more likely to take risks. Seeing someone ski something can trick us into thinking something is safe. Other tracks don’t mean a slope is safe.
Remember, learning about snowpack is a lifelong process and we are all beginners in the mountains! Bringing a sense of humility to the mountains will serve your well. One of my mentors once told me “the number one thing that kills ski mountaineers is being too proud to ask for help.” It’s always ok to turn back and wait for the conditions to be right.
Backcountry skiing packing list
Article prepared by Caroline Gleich