basic avalanche awareness and resources for backcountry skiing

BACKCOUNTRY SKIING AND RIDING are unlike any other sport or recreational activity. From the solitude you feel walking amongst mountain giants and ancient forests to the physicality of touring uphill and the flowing exhilaration of ripping downhill. It’s being sleepy on a cold morning the instantly awake for the glowing alpine sunrise. It’s summiting a peak under your own power that you’ve always admired from the road. It’s basking in the quiet with a few close friends, disconnected from the “real” world. In addition to all that, it’s something that can be done for an entire lifetime—if you stay smart and make safe decisions.

Avalanches are the number one danger that backcountry skiers and riders face. Simply put, an avalanche is a mass of snow that falls down an inclined slope. More than 150 people a year get tumbled, buried, and ultimately lose their lives from being caught in avalanches. It’s a harsh reality to face, but an important one to ensure our longevity in this beautiful sport. In recent years, backcountry skiing has seen an uptick in popularity, and every single person who goes into the backcountry should have formal avalanche education. Whether or not you’re still touring at 80 relies on your willingness to get educated, use that knowledge when it counts, and ultimately stay alive while traveling and skiing in the mountains.

Don’t let this article deter you from entering into the backcountry. There is an abundance of backcountry skiing and riding that involves minimal avalanche risk. Also, risk exists in everything we do in our day-to-day lives. But, just like wearing a seatbelt, there are steps we can take in order to put ourselves into the best position for success. Our longevity in the sport and our lives depend on it. This article isn’t meant to break down the science and granular details associated with avalanches, and it’s not everything you need to be safe in the backcountry. There are plenty of online resources and in-person courses that offer proper instruction. If you plan on skiing or riding in unmitigated terrain regularly, you should take a Level 1 avalanche course from a certified instructor. (Avalanche.org is a great resource to find these classes.) However, this article will provide a general overview of practical and applicable information that will help make you a safer backcountry traveler.
Avalanche awareness is more than the mere acknowledgment that avalanches can happen. Because of the unmitigated nature of a backcountry snowpack (compared to that of a resort snowpack), avalanche risk is omnipresent. With proper knowledge, awareness, and respect for the mountains, we can lower the risk and put ourselves in the best position for returning home. There are a handful of key points to understand, outlined below.
It’s paramount to know the slope aspects and angles that are most dangerous. For example, a slope under 30° cannot actually slide, whereas a slope that is only a few degrees steeper has a much higher chance of sliding. As a matter of fact, avalanches can occur on slopes that range from 30º to over 50º, with most experts agreeing that the sweet spot where most avalanches occur is between 30º and 45º.
Avalanche Mechanics
Avalanches are complex. One day you can ski a line safely, whereas the next day all it takes is the drop of a feather to trigger a slide. It’s important to learn how the multitude of factors (temperature, water content in the snow, changes in wind and sun, slope angle and aspect) work to make the most informed decisions possible when traveling in the backcountry
Avalanche Type
Yes, there are different types of avalanches caused by different factors that have unique characteristics: how they form, how they are triggered, and the danger they present.
You should understand that avalanches can take skiers and snowboarders for a ride, bury them, or worse. It’s easy for us to think that worst-case scenarios won’t happen to us. But the mountains don’t care who you are, how many Instagram followers you have, or that you rode your veggie oil-fueled car up the canyon. Learn how to use your gear (backpack, beacon, shovel, probe), and practice recovery scenarios so that you and your partners feel confident to act swiftly in the case of an avalanche. It’s our respect for the backcountry’s brutality that can make or break a day of skiing or riding.
Our ultimate goal in the backcountry should be to return home safely. Along with acquiring the knowledge above, we must also apply this knowledge in a real-world setting.
1. Planning
Before we throw the skins on and head uphill, it is important to plan the day. The first thing to consider is the history of the snowpack. Is there a lot of temperature variability that has happened over the course of the season and how could this affect the snowpack? Many places where backcountry skiing is popular have a dedicated avalanche center where the sole purpose is to gather data and translate that into a daily avalanche bulletin. These bulletins will typically provide you with recent observations, avalanche hazards that exist, a weather forecast, avalanche rating, and an overall outlook for the day. All of this information should help to decide whether or not you should even head into the backcountry that day. It should also help you and your partners pick an objective and plan the safest route to that objective.
2. Observation and Decision-Making

As key as planning is, never let a plan blind you from what you actually experience out in the field. Mountain Hardwear athlete Luke Smithwick has a unique approach toward his decision-making. He enters the backcountry with a highly informed plan and expectations for what he will find. However, despite that meticulous planning beforehand, Luke’s goal is to prove himself wrong once he’s actually out there. Is it windier than he expected? Maybe the avalanche bulletin called for snow all day, but the sun just poked out. Does the snow feel and react differently than anticipated? Has he observed natural avalanches on the way up to his objective? Luke watches for changes in the wind on nearby ridges and keeps an eye out for avalanche activity in the distance. And he is constantly touching, poking, and testing the snow. This is a proactive approach that engages all of his senses. When we’re out in the backcountry, our actions should be based off the information gathered from what’s right in front of us, not just words on a written report.

It is important to note that Smithwick will typically have a few line choices for the day that vary by difficulty and risk. Based off his observations along a backcountry tour, Luke will abandon his A line for a more conservative B line, C line, or even turn around and just ski down where he toured up. However, Smithwick will never ski something more dangerous than his Plan A, even if he proves himself wrong in the best ways—more stability than expected, less wind than anticipated, etc. In fact, parting from the original plan for a more dangerous line is one of the most common mistakes made in the backcountry.
3. Open and Honest Communication
Group dynamics can make or break our ability to make safe decisions. Open and honest communication should always be the goal for a group. If you or a partner feels uncomfortable at any point during the tour, it should be expressed. Group psychology is always at play when you’re riding with a partner or group of partners. A phenomenon that often happens in the backcountry is called the “expert halo.” This is when experienced backcountry travelers defer all decision-making to somebody they perceive as “more experienced.” But experience, or lack thereof, should never determine whether one’s concerns are taken more or less seriously than others. Create an environment where everybody has a say and concerns are taken into consideration. Pull everyone in your group aside when you arrive at the parking lot, go over the plan, and explicitly state that everyone’s concerns should and will be taken into consideration. Encourage quieter partners not to be afraid of speaking up. One thing avalanche education provides is a way to talk about dangers and fears. Everyone from novices to experts will have a shared language and terminology to discuss risks and their personal comfort levels with those risks. The ability to talk about these things in an open way might very well spare you or a partner’s life.
4. Check the Ego
It’s as easy as this—never be too proud to turn around. If one person doesn’t feel comfortable skiing a line, then that’s it, you don’t ski the line. Anytime you get to the top of a peak and your legs are tired from thousands of vertical feet of climbing, the last thing you want to do is abandon your plan. But remember, there is always tomorrow. There is always next week, next month, next year. The mountain isn’t going anywhere, but you might if you make a bad call. Trust your knowledge, your observations, and your intuition.
5. Recap and Reflection
Always end a tour by reflecting on the day with your group. This should be an honest conversation about what you observed and experienced that day in the mountains, the route you took, and decisions you made. Consider this conversation a debrief and a crucial learning experience for the future. Smithwick always asks himself and his group a simple question: “Did we ‘get away with it’ at any point during the day?” This question challenges the group to think about any decisions they made that might not have been the best decision at that time. Mistakes are made in the backcountry. The odd duality of backcountry skiing and riding is that in order to learn, you have to experience. Often this means you have to make mistakes. But it’s how you learn from those mistakes and what you do the next time that truly matters.