Backcountry skiing is a great way to enjoy the winter snow without the high resort ticket prices and the crowds. You can get access to untouched snow and tree-filled runs. It also allows you added flexibility; you can wake up early and get in a run before work – hello early risers! And let’s not forget, it’s great way to exercise. However, backcountry skiing is serious business. If you are beginner, make sure you think through the following before you head out on your first backcountry adventure:
Take a Level 1 avalanche class
An avalanche class won’t make you an expert, but it will give you greater appreciation for the ‘wild’ in wilderness when traveling in the mountains during the winter, teach you how to make snowpack assessments and terrain choices and allow you to practice avalanche rescue skills. Most local avalanche centers, offer course as well as ski resorts and private tour guides. You can find a complete list of Avalanche centers at http://www.avalanche.org/
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) offers the most comprehensive training courses. You can see a list of classes available in your area that follow the AIARE curriculum at http://aiare.info/providers_list.php.
Remember, terrain is always the answer
No matter the snow conditions or how stable or unstable the snow is, one of the most important things to understand is that the greatest predictor of an avalanche is slope angle. The majority of avalanches occur on slopes between 30-45 degrees, and this information can be used to ensure you stay safe in the backcountry. Armed with this information, you can plan your day and make frequent checks to avoid avalanche terrain by avoiding slopes between 30-45 degrees.
Rent the proper equipment and safety gear
The equipment you use to ski at resorts isn’t practical for the backcountry. Fortunately, many outdoor recreation stores rent touring packages that include skis with AT bindings, AT boots, climbing skins and essential safety gear including beacons, probes and shovels. These items are a must not only to get you to your destination, but for safety. Make sure you take the time to learn how to properly use the equipment and ensure it is in working condition before heading out. There are no tools in the backcountry and walking out can be incredibly difficult.
ALWAYS ski with a partner
Backcountry skiing is not an individual sport, especially for beginners. When you are first starting out, make sure team up with someone you trust. You never know what types of situations you may end up facing and having a friend or two with you who are avalanche educated and cool under pressure is a must.
Also, always remember it is a partnership, even as a beginner you have a role in the decision making of the entire group and always make decisions together. There are a lot of personal and group traps (The Human Factors) that impact our decision making and we highly suggest you check out the series by Powder Magazine to understand the ‘people’ traps we can fall for.
Check local avalanche forecasts and study all available resources
The National Avalanche Center – www.avalanche.org – can direct you to your local avalanche center, which will provide extensive details on current snow conditions in your area. Area conditions can vary widely based on terrain, slope direction and steepness. If you do plan on spending time in the backcountry, let the avalanche forecast be one of the social media channels that you check everyday. The Utah Avalanche Center has daily observations from those actually out in the mountain along with an official forecast. By learning what others are seeing and experiencing can help you make better choices as you approach and descend from your destination. Plus for us, its fun.
Danger is rated on a five-point system – low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme. Most avalanche centers present danger rating using an Avalanche Rose, learn how to read these and know that they vary by region because of the varying heights of the terrain.
Don’t go TOO big
If you’ve never been out in the backcountry, it’s easy to underestimate the effort involved in trekking up the mountain. Hiking a few miles is one thing; but skinning up a few miles is something completely different. Start small to ensure you get to your destination with some energy to spare for skiing down. Pushing yourself can lead to bad decision making due to exhaustion. You can always take another run if want more powder time.