Backcountry skiing is an inherently hazardous activity. Many factors, including exposure, weather, speed, and most of all, avalanche hazard combine to make backcountry skiing into what is called a “risk sport”. Part of the appeal of backcountry skiing is the environment of consequence, which adds a degree of satisfaction to a day which ends uneventfully. But some elements of backcountry skiing, like avalanche hazard in particular, contain chaotic and unpredictable hazards.
These hazards come into being from two intertwined hazards. First is the snowpack, which is a source of risk which is both variable/unpredictable, as well as one which doesn’t provide good feedback on the quality of our decision making. On top of that, we humans are fallible and subject to heuristic traps, aka Human Factors. This means that we are essentially never sure of our ability to make good decisions in avalanche terrain, and as a result, most skiers choose to carry with them tools and equipment which help to reduce the consequences of poor decision making. These include, most commonly, the holy trinity of beacon, shovel, and probe.
The goal of this article is to discuss how terrain selection and avalanche hazard affect our decisions about which tools are appropriate to throw in our packs on different kinds of ski days. This discussion is followed by some example days and the tools which might be appropriate on those days. As always when in avalanche terrain: it is important that you take this information for what it is–information and not definition. Hands-on training with a professional is required and cannot be replaced by watching videos, reading books, or by articles on the web. Your own experience and judgment are of paramount importance.
[h5]Training Resources and Supplementary Reading[/h5]
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE): the US standard.
American Avalanche Association instructor finder. Click on your state to find courses near you.
Canadian Avalanche Centre: Spelled with an e and not just for Canucks. Canadians are leading the North American avalanche world.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper. The book.
The Avalanche Handbook, a deeper look into the science, for the snow geeks out there.
[h3] Terrain Selection [/h3]
Without slope, there is no avalanche hazard, and even with a slope, if there aren’t people on it, there’s no avalanche hazard. To quickly review, with very few exceptions, avalanches will occur only on terrain steeper than about 25 degrees, and most slab avalanches occur from 28-45 degrees. Above 45 degrees, sluffing and loose snow avalanches are more prevalent.
This means that there is very little likelihood that you will ever ben involved in an avalanche if you spend your whole life skiing at 25 degrees or less. For better or for worse, it is the steeper and more dangerous terrain which is generally appealing to us as skiers. A good metric for whether an avalanche is possible on a given run is to ask, does this look skiable? If so, then you’re in avalanche terrain.
There are days in any experienced backcountry traveler’s life when the 25 degree day is mandatory. No terrain may be safe but that terrain which isn’t avalanche terrain. These are ‘meadow skipping’ days, also known as GFP. On days like this, you’ll still see skiers meadow skipping through the GFP wearing ABS backpacks and toting 3m steel probes. Some feel naked without such gear.
On the other hand, its also common to see unprepared skiers leaving through sidecountry gates on considerable hazard days without so much as a backpack to hide the absence of their avalanche tools. Unfortunately, most won’t end up in an avalanche, so theyll think that their decision making was appropriate. Until it kills them.
The takeaway is that we cannot be blind to the terrain choices that we make, and we have to pick tools which are appropriate for the terrain that we’re going to ski. You don’t need an airbag backpack when you’re skiing 20 degree powder through the trees, but you had damn well better bring a beacon and shovel when you head out to ski that rad couloir in the middle of the winter on a moderate hazard day.
Field determination of avalanche hazard is beyond the scope of this article and it is the subject of a lifetime. Thankfully, in many recreational areas, there is a daily avalanche forecast created by intelligent and caring people whose sole concern is to keep you alive. As an observer for the Utah Avalanche Center, I had the opportunity to see first hand how the best pros in the business work, and moreover, how much they care. They are your allies, make use of them and read the forecast. In North America, the forecast has 4 levels of interest: Low, Moderate, Considerable/High, and Extreme.
[h5]Low:[/h5] Natural and human triggered avalanches are unlikely. Avalanches will likely be small, and in isolated areas or extreme terrain. These are days for “general precaution”, which means that just because it’s a low-danger day doesn’t mean you can turn your brain off. You may, however, think carefully about not bringing some of your safety equipment if you have the experience to be confident in such choices.
[h5]Moderate:[/h5] Natural avalanches unlikely, human triggered avalanches possible. Small avalanches possible in specific areas, or large avalanches in isolated areas. This is the bread-and-butter of the backcountry skier. Standard avalanche precautions are required if traveling in avalanche terrain. Keep your brain on until you reach the bar because you’re going to need it to help you to differentiate the subtle differences in terrain that make the difference between happy and very sad.
[h5]Considerable / High:[/h5] Some may balk at combining two categories which are traditionally separate. But here’s the rub: experienced backcountry travelers differentiate little between these two levels. As they say at the UAC, “would you go into a bar if you had a considerable change of being shot? Then why go skiing in considerable terrain?” On considerable days, human triggered avalanches are likely. On high days, human triggered avalanches are very likely. On both days, you are more likely than not to trigger an avalanche. Most people die on “Considerable” days, likely just because the day wasn’t labeled “High”. It is possible to have a great ski day on a considerable or high day, but you shouldn’t be in the considerable terrain, or if the hazard is widespread, then you shouldn’t be in avalanche terrain. Under these conditions, Avalanche gear considerations are similar to moderate days. Beacon, shovel, and brain required, with extremely careful terrain selection a must.
[h5]Extreme:[/h5] Once in a blue moon. These conditions destroy highways and hotels. Stay in the bar and you might be safe. No airbag in the world will save you should you go skiing.
[h3]Avalanche Safety Gear[/h3]
Modern avalanche beacons are amazing tools. Though they’re spendy ($280-550), their range and ease of use has improved dramatically within the last 5 years. Good beacons have three or more antennas and a digital read-out that is intuitive and easy to use. Don’t be suckered into cheaper 1-antenna models– they don’t work well. Do you want to know that your friend died because you didn’t want to spend another $100?
Popular models used by snow safety professionals worldwide include the Pieps DSP, BCA Tracker/Tracker 2, and the Ortovox 3+. Don’t be lured into complicated models with many features. These models are favored for their simplicity and reliability, which are the factors that count when the brown stuff hits the fan. It might seem nice that your beacon has an altimeter, GPS, heart rate monitor, and bluetooth tethering, but these are functions that consume batteries and complicate the primary functions of the beacon. K.i.s.s. – Keep It Simple Stupid.
For every beacon, there must be a shovel. There’s no use in knowing where your friend is buried if you can’t rescue him from his icy tomb. DO NOT think that you can use your hands, a plastic-bladed shovel, your ski, or some other substitute tool to dig through avalanche debris. When avalanches stop moving, they almost instantaneously set up into an extremely dense and frozen matrix of ice which will laugh at a plastic implement. Metal is a must.
The best shovels on the market pack small but expand into a tool large enough that it can be used to do serious damage. Some have a T-grip and some have a D-grip, which is a matter of preference, though most prefer a T-grip (pictured). The best shovels will also have holes for conversion into a snow anchor or a recue sled, as well as a flat back to the blade to make flat sides on snow pits. Additionally, some shovels now come with rescue sleds or snow saws which stow inside of the shaft. These functions are fine so long as they are not exceedingly heavy and they don’t reduce the shovel’s functionality for digging.
Another factor to consider is blade size. Most initially think that a larger blade is better, but as mentioned above, avalanche debris is dense and heavy. In climates with a wet, coastal snowpack, like the Cascades, Sierras, or British Columbia, a smaller blade is better for moving snow because the blocks that such a blade will cut are small enough to be moved by a normal human without becoming exhausted. In snowpacks that tend to be more inland, continental, and dry, a larger blade is appropriate. Here a smaller blade would be less efficient. Smaller blades (~14″ x 9″) and larger blades (~16″ x 10″) can be used effectively in either snowpack by an experienced user, but if in doubt, go smaller. Frequently favored options include the Black Diamond Transfer, the BCA B1, and the K2 Rescue Shovel.
A probe is a good tool to have for pinpointing a friend before digging for them, and which probe you choose should likewise be determined by your snowpack. In general, consider length, material, and fastening mechanism when choosing a probe.The most important consideration when buying a probe is length. Fully 50% of burials are 100 cm to 218 cm deep (CAC). This means that your probe must be 250 cm in length, and preferably 300 cm. That’s a lot of probe! But there’s no use in bringing a tool that won’t reach. The best probes will have depth markers on them, which is helpful for snow science, as well as for measuring the depth of a burial.
After length, material is most important. Wide-gauge aluminum, skinny aluminum, and carbon fiber are the three common options. Material will determine the lateral stiffness of a probe, and thus its functionality. A poor quality or lightweight probe will deflect sideways too and fro when jammed into a variable snowpack. It’s wiggly, so it gets pushed around and you can’t be sure and consistent in your probing. On the other hand, a quality probe is stiff and probes straight and true. Generally the wider the aluminum tube, the stiffer and heavier a probe is. Carbon fiber is favored by those going light, fast, and far, who understand the limitations of their gear, or by fools. Carbon fiber, in addition to deflecting easily, will also snap occasionally. For most applications, aluminum is the best choice.
Fasteners and ease of assembly used to be a big consideration. These days, most companies use a simple system that works well. Avoid systems which require screwing pieces of a probe together. Good probes can be deployed and locked in under two seconds just by pulling the tensioning wire and jiggling the probe a bit. Play with probes in the store and find what works for you.
For almost any application, if I choose to bring a probe, I think that the Black Diamond Guide probe is a superior option.
Airbags are a new technology and stand to revolutionize backcountry skiing. Whether this will be for the better or worse is yet to be determined. Among experts, there is significant concern that airbags provide too much of a sense of unwarranted safety, and that they will soon be demonstrated to have a negative impact on conservative decision making in the mountains. On the other hand, they have already been demonstrated to have a significant impact in the reduction of deaths by burial in avalanches. They have no demonstrable effect on traumatic deaths however.
Good and evil aside, the technologies of airbag packs are improving by the year. Air tanks have grown smaller and are now refillable. Different valve systems and bag arrangements have improved their functionality. But the packs remain heavy, and because the gas tank takes up space in the pack, their capacity is almost always less than is listed. BCA and ABS are the current industry leaders.
[h3]Synthesis: Choosing Tools for Different Days[/h3]
[h4]The Low Hazard Day[/h4]
On a low hazard day, it’s unlikely that you’ll trigger an avalanche, and if you do, it’ll probably be small. Today is a good day to leave the snow pit study tools at home (unless you’re a snow geek), and consider lightening your avy gear load. Use prudent decision making, but consider bringing a shorter probe, or possibly leaving the probe at home. This certainly isn’t a day to bring your heavy airbag backpack. On some days, if you’re certain of your decision making and the limits of your travels, you could consider leaving it all at home. But don’t be wrong, or you die, for sure.
[h4]The Mixed Hazard Day[/h4]
Ah yes, the most common kind of day. The hazard is not widespread, but it’s out there. Worse still, it’s isolated, but likely to produce dangerous avalanches that could bury a person. What to take on a day like this depends on two factors: where do you plan to travel, and how predictable is the hazard. If, on the day pictured above, you’ll be sticking to south-facing aspects below 9500′, they for you, it’s a low day. If, on the other hand, you’re headed to the northerly aspects, you’re “dancing with the dragon”. You’ll need to use your knowledge and experience to decide what is safe to ski, and you shouldn’t head into the considerable terrain. When doing the tango, a full complement of gear with solid probe and shovel is best. You could even wear an ABS pack if you’re into that kind of thing.
[h4]The Considerable / High day[/h4]
Here, the forecast says it all: Stay off of and out from underneath slopes steeper than 33 degrees on all aspects and elevations…You can find safe riding conditions on most slopes less-steep than 30 degrees that are not locally connected to steeper terrain. This is much like a low-danger day as you’ll be confined to low angle and well-treed slopes. On the other hand, you may want to bring your shovel and probe, because a failure in your judgment or a lapse in your vigilance will carry a much greater penalty.
[h3] Conclusion [/h3]
Travel in the mountains is inherently unsafe. With experience and training, we can try to avoid involvement in an avalanche. Judgement and tutelage at the hands of an expert cannot be replaced or skipped. Avalanche safety tools exist to attempt to reduce the consequences should we or others cause an accident, but they’re no substitute for using your brain. Terrain selection is the largest single factor in determining whether you will live a long and happy life. Terrain decisions should be based on avalanche hazard and not on bravado, powder lust, or peer pressure. Once you have decided on the terrain that you will ski, you can choose your tools appropriately. These are safety tools, so quality is extremely important. If you choose to bring a tool, that means that there is a chance that you’ll use it, so consider what you want to have in hand when It Goes Down. Also, traveling in the mountains is possible without avalanche gear. This was practiced for a long time before the introduction of the beacon. Traveling so is much more dangerous and bears higher consequences, but can be very illustrative of the changes in decision making that occur when we do have our tools with us.
Use you brain and bring tools to back you up. Get trained, buy quality tools, learn to use them, and ski powder for a lifetime.
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I always love your comments and want to hear what you think, so chime in below! And if you’re liking what you’re seeing, check out the next article in the series: The Seven Needs of Backcountry Travel.