This ski season was a deadly one for avalanches in North America. With the shallow snowpack of much of the West and the deep snowpack of the PNW and Alaska, conditions were all too ripe. Included in anybody’s backcountry arsenal should be good practices and plenty of avalanche awareness. “Safe” route finding in avalanche terrain isn’t easy. Many factors come into play–including weather, snowpack, and human factors. Here’s the thing about avalanches: they are avoidable. Well, obviously. If you don’t ski in the backcountry, chances are pretty good you won’t run into an avalanche.
But the backcountry holds some sweet rewards for those that can safely navigate it. All the latest ski industry trends point toward releasable heels and slackcountry gear that allows skiers and riders to ski inbounds or backcountry or a combination of the two on any given day. In other words, the Holy Grail of your own private skiing Idaho has never been closer. The difference between playing at a ski area and playing in the backcountry is more than the light fluffiness of the snow. In addition to explosive control at ski areas, the snow is also work hardened, compacted day after day by skiers and snowboarders breaking up the slabs and reducing avalanche hazard. While this might be one reason skiers are heading for the off-piste, it keeps the pistes dummy-proof.
In the backcountry, however, you are on your own. Backcountry travelers must know not only the daily conditions, but preferably track the last few weeks of weather to truly understand the snowpack. They should also dig pits and follow safe route finding techniques. Even experienced backcountry users can be surprised by avalanches. So the more you know, the better off you will be.
The Canadian Avalanche Center wants to test you on your route finding. They offer an online avalanche course meant to hone backcountry user’s skills. Here is one of the route finding exercises in which you can track your route from point A to point B. When you veer into dangerous territory, the tutorial alerts you and you must start over again.
This is worth your time. Just click on the photo to start your test.
- The Ski Industry: Caught between inbounds and out-of-bounds (kimkircher.com)