I didn't think I would ever get caught in an avalanche. I bet the kid sitting next to me at the top of the 9990 Lift, just past the backcountry access gate outside of Canyons- Park City Resort, didn't think so either.
He begins to crank down the straps on his snowboard. He's ready to drop into thousands of acres of powder. Just before leaving the ridge line, he turns to his buddy and says, "Hey, don't let me die today bro."
The good news- he made it down safely. We all did. The bad news:
- In 90% of avalanche accidents, the victim or someone in the victims party triggers the avalanche
- Most avalanche fatalities in recent decades have been males, highly skilled skiers or snowboarders, and between the ages of 18-40
- Avalanche victims rescued within about 15 minutes have a high survival rate, almost 91%. The survival rate drops to 34% after 20 minutes of being buried under the snow. This means those in your party are likely to be the ones who rescue you. Not ski patrol or search and rescue.
backcountry travel is on the rise
With an increase of heli and cat ski operations, more powerful snowmobiles and advanced touring skis and snowboard technology, coupled with a decrease in snowfall in most ski areas, backcountry travel is on the rise. In addition, accessing backcountry terrain from resorts and skiing just beyond the resort boundaries has become more popular.
Everyone wants the fresh tracks, that beautiful line coming down through the glades. The chance to capture it all on film and be a GoPro Hero or Insta famous? Yeah, that to.
lack of avalanche education
The signs at many of these backcountry gates clearly say, "YOU CAN DIE", some even say, "Are you beeping?" so you can check that your beacon is working. But all too often, as it was on that morning in Park City, the party next to me had no beacons, no avy gear, and just the trust of their friends that they would arrive at the bottom safe.
Avalanches during snowy winters in Utah's Wasatch mountains are almost a daily occurrence. If you enjoy getting into the backcountry in Big Cottonwood or Little Cottonwood Canyon, significant avalanche terrain looms above the most popular routes as you skin up to the ridge line. These backcountry routes are not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for novices, but all too often we go anyway.
It's not only in Utah that we see adventures into the backcountry by novice skiers and snowboarders. After a short hike, you can scoot out the backcountry gates at the top of Vail Mountain and head for the Minturn Mile. This route gives you backcountry access to those powder stashes in between the trees, and finishes with a toboggan-like chute into the old mining town of Minturn.
How convenient that our last run of the day dropped off at the famous Minturn Saloon, where you can grab a beer with friends and share the stoke of your epic adventure. The Midturn Mile is a great way to end the day, but we were exhausted, and if there was a slide, no one in my party was prepared.
If this sounds like you, then I have a few tips to help you travel through the backcountry more safely. These recommendations are based off my notes from an American Avalanche Institute Avy 1 Class, along with a Know Before You Go presentation by the Utah Avalanche Center.
10 tips for winter backcountry travel
1. Get the Gear
Most of your local ski and snowboarding shops may not carry your basic avy gear- beacon, shovel and probe, so look to places like REI or Backcountry.com to pick up the gear, plus a pack to keep it all in. Yes, we know it's a big expense, and we know you already have 4 backpacks, but how much is your life worth?
We've also found its better to have one pack to keep all your avy gear in, so you never forget anything on your way out the door. Companies like Black Diamond and Backcountry Access (BCA) also make lightweight packs designed specifically to carry your avy gear in separate, easy-to-access compartments, plus have added features, like the avalung or an airbag.
Keep mind if an avalanche occurs, you want to have other items with you to help you and your party make it to safety, or survive long enough for help to arrive. We also carry a headlamp, a first aid kit, two-way radios, emergency blanket, snow study kit, snow saw, collapsable water bottle, snacks and warm layers- beanie, buff, extra puffy and glove liners.
2. does Your Gear Work for You?
Based on that list above, you want to make sure you can comfortably carry all of your gear when you skin up and then ski or ride down. Try skiing with a pack next time you're heading to the resort, getting on and off the lifts become a bit more complicated, and your balance is challenged, especially on a snowboard.
If you can get to an REI or a shop that carries avy gear, try before you buy, especially the beacon, to make sure it will work for you. You also want a shovel with an extendable handle. A super-lightweight shovel is great, but if you can't actually shovel snow efficiently, don't buy it.
It wasn't until after our Avy 1 class that we realized what gear actually worked best for us under avalanche conditions. If you can test it beforehand, this will save you some money, and extra trips to REI.
3. Practice with your gear
We can't stress this one enough. Within minutes of our first time out in the field we realized quickly that it's very different trying to get your skins off when you're standing on top of a ridge line with the wind howling. It's also a lot harder to find and retrieve a beacon, and the effort needed to shovel hard packed snow is exhausting.
Also try using your gear with the gloves or mittens you're planning to ski or ride with. I quickly learned that my mittens kept me warm, but I could not operate my beacon with them on. I could barely unzip my backpack!
4. Get the training
First we picked up some books. Then we watched a few videos. After all that, we signed up for classes. There's so much you can learn, at no cost, that will help you prepare for backcountry adventures. Check out Backcountry.com or the Utah Avalanche Center for more information and online tutorials.
We recommend taking an AVY 1 class AFTER you've had your avy and touring gear for a bit and have practiced with it. If you show up to the class with rental touring skis and never having put your skins on before, you're in for a rough few days.
5. Get the Forecast
Knowing the current and recent conditions in the backcountry area you plan on traveling thru is a key step in the Know Before You Go process. Start looking at the forecast well before your trip to become more familiar with the area and to spot patterns in the weather and terrain conditions.
As we spend most of our time in Utah's Wasatch Mountains, the Utah Avalanche Center's website is bookmarked in our browser window. Visit Avalanche.org to find your local avalanche center and then bookmark it. We'll wait for ya.
Learn how to read the forecast, and pay attention to avalanche conditions in areas that have the same aspect (the compass direction a slope faces) and slope angle as the place you may be heading.
6. Create a Plan
Set objectives for your trip, have backup plan, and be okay with not being able to ski a line if the conditions are not in your favor.
Does everyone in your party have avy gear and know how to use it? Maybe do a practice beacon search altogether outside your rental house or hotel before you go. Make it fun - the one who finds the buried avy pack first gets a beer.
Don't be swayed by the expert halo, and choose routes that are well within the capabilities of your entire party. Speaking of parties, you may want to limit your group to 3-4 people, or divide a larger group into smaller groups. Keep in mind, 90% of avalanches are triggered by you or someone in your party.
Also let someone outside of your group know your plans for the day. Having cell service is great, but be prepared to have no contact with the outside world once you set off from the trailhead. Having long range two-way radios are helpful, not only to call for help, but most have channels that broadcast the NOAA weather observations in your area.
As we mentioned earlier, in the event of an avalanche, the people in your party are going to be the ones to rescue you, so pick your backcountry companions wisely.
7. Once on-site, Get the Picture
Do the conditions match what was forecasted? Have they changed?
Do unstable conditions exist- recent avalanches, new snow, fog, recent warming, wind, cracking or collapsing snow (that cool 'thump' sound isn't so cool anymore).
Does everyone in your group have all their avy gear? What about googles, helmet, food and water?
Before leaving the parking lot, do a beacon test to ensure everyone in your party can send and receive. This is often where you catch a beacon with low batteries or one that is not functioning properly.
8. Testing. testing.
Perform your tests on areas with similar slope angle, elevation and aspect. If you skin up a North-facing open slope, testing along the way, and all signs are good, do you think it's safe to then ski down the adjacent East-facing slope that's covered in trees? Although the tree-filled glade may seem like a safe place, you haven't tested that aspect or slope angle, and trees can be a huge terrain trap.
Dig a snow pit, and do sample testing along the way. Yes, we know it takes forever sometimes to dig a good pit, but you'd be surprised how many times we dug a pit and got no results, and then dug another pit a few dozen feet higher, or on a different slope angle or aspect, and got full propagation.
9. Assess Group dynamics
You've made a plan, everyone is on board and prepared. You get to the trailhead, your friends are stoked and looking forward to freshies. 30 minutes in, one of the members of your party is falling behind. Someone has a wardrobe malfunction. Another is voicing concerns- "that slopes looks much steeper up close."
Pay close attention to group dynamics at the beginning, middle and end of your trip. Remember, if one person is not feeling comfortable with the agreed descent, identify safer terrain and minimize your exposure.
Select a leader for your party, but ensure everyone in your group has a voice and communicates openly. It's not fun to get to the top of a climb and then have to hike all the way back down, but it's definitely better than pushing someone out of their comfort zone and creating a dangerous situation.
Most of us spend a lot of hard-earned cash on gear, travel and accommodations to get to that backcountry trailhead. However, we all want to live to ski another day, and we want to keep those friendships for a long time to come.
10. Get Out of Harm's Way
There I was, slowly descending the planned route in Big Cottonwood Canyon and getting into knee-deep powder. I'm stoked, my smile is big, this is what I've been waiting for all day! Then I lose my edge and go down. I spend almost 30 seconds trying to get upright again. I'm starting to breathe heavily as I know the bowl to my left is filled with fresh snow, on an unstable base layer, and can be triggered remotely. I look around for my companions. They are not dropping in to help me! Hello?? I'm over here. What the hell is going on!!
I learned my lesson the hard way. In avalanche terrain my partners were safer waiting for me to pull myself up and get moving again than to drop in and try to help.
Other tips we learned: Practice moving one at a time across steep and unstable terrain. Always be watching for signs, listening. Leave your headphones at home.
We know your want those selfies with the beautiful mountains in the background, but wait until you're out of harms way to record your Insta story.
This blog post is by no means a substitute for taking a class, practicing with your own gear and with your backcountry partner. Also keep in mind, education is an ongoing process.
We want to thank the American Avalanche Institute, including our instructors Mike Ruth, Patrick Reddish and Cameron Banko, along with the Utah Avalanche Center. They provided us with practical skills and hands-on demonstrations in real life avalanche conditions, yet all the while keeping us safe and our stoke level high.
- Meredith McConvill