Backcountry Skiing Safety | Making A Plan

There are many things we all need in order to travel safely in the backcountry, whether that’s on skis, splitboard, sled, or even snowshoes. In this series of posts, I will go far beyond the beacon, shovel, and probe, and into the detailed nuances that make all the difference between getting away with it, and having everything go according to plan.

The Endless Planning

Planning your day in the backcountry starts well beyond arriving at the trailhead. In fact, it can start as far back as you’d like to imagine. Your plan, every time you enter the backcountry, should take into account every bit of experience you have, prior knowledge of the area and snow conditions, as well as any information you can get from the Avalanche services and people’s observations in the previous days. Hell, I think about my plans when I’m hiking the mountains in the summer, mentally mapping out rock features and avalanche paths to avoid. But for simplicity, I’ll focus on what should be done the night before and the day of your day out. 

The Avalanche Report and Snowpack

Just because the Avi report says you’re good to go on all aspects and at all elevations, does not mean you can head out there and huck-it like Cody Townsend. And vice versa, just because it might say high danger at all elevations and aspects, doesn’t mean you can’t get out to ski. You must understand what the report is telling you and why they are saying it. Avi reports are blanket statements over a large portion of mountainous terrain that has nuances that will never be captured. Check out Avalanche.org to find your local avalanche center.

For example, a repeating avalanche path that will be a high risk all season, no matter how “safe” conditions might be. This takes time to learn, but can be accelerated by mapping out all the avalanches from a given year, and years prior.

From the moment the first snow falls, until the last freak June snowstorms, you should be reading the avalanche report every day. Even if you’re not going into the backcountry that day. The idea is to be able to understand, not only what the snow conditions are going to be the day you’re going out, but what they’ve been over the past week, month, or season. Know what weather conditions resulted in weak layers or instabilities, and track them as the season goes on. Read observations from other backcountry users and take notes of their experiences and what they’re seeing. Dig deep into accident reports and make sure you don’t repeat the same mistakes.

The Weather

Weather changes on a moments notice in the mountains. Most weather forecasts are only accurate for the towns in and around the mountain ranges, not on the summits or canyons. For forecast of temperatures and weather in the mountains at specific elevations, check out Mountain-Forecast.com.

With that being said, know the weather for a given day and plan accordingly. Account for any forecasted weather to move in faster or slower than predicted over the time you’re on the mountainside. Know what temps are like throughout the day and how they will vary as you climb and descend the mountain. Also keep in mind the aspect of the slope you’re on and how its relation to the sun will directly impact temperatures. 

Knowing the temperatures is crucial to plan for snow quality, as well as your safety. You might start your day in the cold, shaded morning but quickly get warm as you climb up the mountain. And if the temps warm up too much, you can find yourself sweating too much and risk hypothermia if the temps quickly dropped again or you head down a drainage that isn’t exposed to sun. Worse yet, snow storms can originate out of thin air in the mountains and can leave you stuck in a whiteout. Knowing the weather, and understanding storms over a season will help you make good decisions in the backcountry. 

The Route and Terrain

Knowing where you’re going to go in the mountains might seem like an obvious thing that needs planning, but it’s much more than that. Following a skin track that someone else made, into a zone you’ve never skied, is by far one of the most common way people get themselves into trouble. As a group, you need to come up with a plan for everything. When you will arrive at the trailhead, what your main objectives are, how will you get there, how will you get down from there, what time you expect to be done, emergency evacuation routes, and what problems might arise with your whole plan.

My ski partners and I start the night before about what we’d like to ski. Whether that is a summit, a zone, or just a specific line choice. We use tools like FATMap and CalTopo to map out routes to estimate mileage and elevation. Then when we get to the trailhead, taking into account all the current information regarding snow, weather, and safety, we pull out our maps and start discussing the route options, or the how will we get to our objective. Some routes are steeper than others, while others are safer than others. Then we discuss how we ski the objective and how we will return back to the trailhead. We discuss our emergency strategy if we need to bail off the route for any reason. Then we take an estimate about when we’ll reach our objective(s) and when we should be home. Before we headed out from the trailhead, we make sure to let our “emergency contacts” know our plan and timing. This gives someone, outside our group, the plan and whether or not emergency services need to be called in if we don’t show up when we say we will.

Lastly, a part of this that is hard to explain, is the knowledge of the terrain. This comes from experience. Safe mountain travel requires you to know the mountain well enough to make smart decisions. Simply put, all the avalanche reports and topo maps in the world can’t help you make a safe plan without knowing exactly the terrain you’ll be moving through. Terrain traps, rocky sections covered by snow, crevasses in glacial areas, repeating avalanche paths, skier paths above and below you, and non-obvious cliff bands. These are some of the things that need to be seen, first hand, for you to accurately build a mental map for safe route planning and travel.

The Gear

I won’t harp on the gear too much, as it is an endless wormhole to dig into. From an overall perspective, you need to have the appropriate gear to enter the backcountry, and also be competent in using all of it. You will need a beacon, shovel, and probe. Additionally, you’ll need tools to to move in the backcountry over sometimes feet of soft, un-groomed snow. That can include skis/splitboard, pivoting bindings, skins, poles, avalanche packs, and layers of clothing to stay warm and cool as you generate heat. 

Not only do you need to know how to use your gear when it works, but also to be prepared if something breaks. How will you fix it? Ski straps can fix broken boots, attach a boot to your binding if something breaks, and even skins that won’t stick. Duck Tape can fix clothing, broken poles, and just about anything superficial. Have a multi-tool to address any mechanical issues. And lastly, having gear to not only administer general first aid, but also the gear to potentially remove a partner or skier from the backcountry in the form of a sled, tarp, or bivy. 

The Group Dynamic

The partners you choose to enter the backcountry with are just as important as knowing the avalanche conditions for the given day. Simply put, these people, whether they are friends, partners, or strangers you met in the parking lot, are the only entity that is able to save your life in the even of an emergency. I do not mean to sound dramatic, but it is the truth. From avalanche burial to broken bones, and from hypothermia to gear failure. You can easily find yourself being in need of assistance from your partners or providing assistance to them, and the group needs to be able to rely on every single person.

Pick reliable partners that have experience in the backcountry and ones that you would trust with your life. Because at the end of the day, that is exactly what you’re doing when you enter the backcountry with them. Emergency services, as reliable as they are in mountain towns, may take minutes or even hours to arrive in the event of an emergency. Most situations in the backcountry require immediate response that simply cannot wait for anyone except your partners to be the ones to react. So choose your partner(s) wisely. 

Summary

The plan is anything and everything that goes into your day in the backcountry. It never stops and is in perpetual motion. The plan is what is used to reduce decision making real-time. Because real-time plans tend to be nearsighted and wrought with errors. If you stick to a plan you laid out, and you think is safe, it will help keep you safe when temptations arise to just, “ski that extra line” or “check out a new zone.” Obviously, as problems arise with your plan, changes need to be made, but only in the event that the original plan was unsafe or not correct based on the information you previously had. And at the end of the day, keep talking with your partners, never stop assessing the plan you previously made and any new information you get along the way. Like I said, “the plan” is in perpetual motion. 

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