Backcountry Safety: The Basics

Sarah Benton

Cutting fresh lines and shredding in pow is what makes backcountry riding so appealing. You don’t have to deal with packed pistes or ski-schools and you have the freedom to pick out your own route, not follow someone else’s. Chuck in some tree stumps and cliff drops and you can jib and shred your way to boarding bliss. But there are risks involved in riding where no one else has, namely avalanches. 

Just last week I witnessed one of these monsters on my local mountain in Austria. Luckily no one was seriously hurt, but the avalanche was caused by two riders skirting above a piste in some deep pow and the avalanche then ran down onto the piste itself. So if this happened in an area that is already fairly well tracked out, imagine what could happen when you really get off the beaten track.

Gear Up
Before jumping off the cornice and into the pow, get the right gear.  If you really want to get into the wild, you will need an avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe and a shovel. You also need to know how to use these little beauties, so make sure to learn, and practice with your friends, or look for a local resort with a beacon training field.

If you’re just riding off-piste at resorts, it’s still safest to carry all of your gear.  Your friends can start searching much more quickly than ski patrol, and speed is key in an avalanche burial.  For added safety, consider outerwear or boots have a Recco Refector built into the lining. These bounce back the signal sent from a Recco Detector used by ski patrol, allowing them to pin point your location.  Check and see if your resort uses Recco at recco.com.  

Also invest in a decent helmet. It may be deep snow so a nice soft landing, but there are trees and rocks that you might not see until it’s too late, so I’d advise keeping a lid on it. 


Make sure you know how to use your Beacon/Transciever.  Popular brands include Ortovox, Pieps, and Backcountry Access (BCA)

Take a Class
If you are serious about backcountry riding for real, then do an avalanche awareness course. I used to think these were a waste of money, but after recently completing one, I would whole-heartedly recommend them. You don’t just learn how these beasts form, you learn how to check the snow-pack, what to do if you get stuck in one, and how to pick out the safest lines without compromising on the thrill factor. 

Check the Snow
Before you get on the mountain, you should check avalanche and weather reports to make sure the conditions are at their safest and most fun to ride. Make a note of terrain and orientations that are flagged as high avalanche danger.  Remember, that the weather moves much faster at altitude, so you won’t have long to ride to safety if a mega storm roles in unannounced. Although you will want to ride after a fresh dump, bear in mind that most avalanches occur during or 24 hours after a storm, so don’t get too excited on dodgy slopes.


A typical backcountry access gate at a US resort.

Once on the mountain, check the snow pack to make sure the snow conditions are safe before you start shredding.  Keep an eye out for obvious red flags like recent avalanche activity.

Plan Your Route

Being the first to lay out a track is the be all and end all for lovers of backcountry riding, but don’t get too carried away.  You could end up with a line that is just gonna end in tears, hiking and possibly a lot of pain.

Route finding is essential. Stop where there’s a good view of the descent to pick out a good line that will be fun to shred. Learning how to pick the safest line takes some education and experience, but one important factor is the pitch of the slope.  Most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees, similar to blue or black runs at the resort, so try to choose your lines accordingly.  Also, bear in mind that tree runs are safer, but not avalanche proof and the down-hill side of ridges and cornices tend to be more dangerous, as windy conditions cause snow to accumulate here.


Stop along a ridge where you can see your descent route and look for any terrain traps such as cliffs or uphill portions of the run.

Bring Some Friends

The last point is common sense really. Don’t ride alone and tell people where you are planning on going, and when you plan to get back.  The quicker someone realizes you’re missing, the quicker they get on the search-party case. Make sure your friends all have the proper gear and know how to use it, otherwise no one will have the gear to help you if something happens.

You should also keep your riding buddies in sight. I was boarding in a new patch recently, and lost sight of my friend. I ended up going completely the wrong way and the only way to get back to him was to do a rather large cliff drop.  The best approach is always to ride one at a time, regrouping at safe spots along the way.  This keeps anyone from getting off course, and allows your friends to keep an eye on you, preventing multiple burials, and greatly increasing the chance of a safe rescue.

Above all, have fun. Riding in the back country is the reason I snowboard, but never, ever, let your guard down. You can be as prepared as possible, but avalanches are unpredictable: you are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Local Forecasting & Classes:

US:
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education: http://avtraining.org/
American Avalanche Association: http://www.avalanche.org

Canada:
Canadian Avalanche Centre: http://www.avalanche.ca/HomeCAC

Europe:
European Avalanche Services: http://www.avalanches.org/

New Zealand:
New Zealand Mountain Safety Council: http://www.avalanche.net.nz

Argentina:
Club Andino Bariloche: http://www.clubandino.org/cab/cab.asp

More resources
A good book: http://www.amazon.com/Staying-Alive-Avalanche-Terrain-Tremper/dp/0898868343
http://www.recco.com/pdf/whitebook.pdf

Posted by sarahb on 03/17/09



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