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.
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.