Stay on the Snow and out of Trouble
“I think we drop in here,” said my ski buddy as we traversed several gullies away from the top of the Snowbasin Tram. “Yeah, maybe,” I hesitantly offered. The storm clouds were making visibility hard and we were in a zone only one of us has skied, with a local on a sunny day years ago.
“We may have traversed too far and are in a different drainage, but I guess this is right,” I finally agreed. Our goal was to make a few turns, then cut back hard right into the resort. Then it happened, a small avalanche knocked my buddy off his feet. We were in a small opening above some trees—a relatively safe zone. Nonetheless, it scared the crap out of us. We started to head back to the resort when it dawned on both us that we had, in fact, traversed too far and could not get back to safety.
We were in alpine gear, rather than backcountry gear that would allow us to retrace our path. While we did have avalanche safety gear—beacon, shovel, and probe—and it looked like we may need them soon, we were not fully prepared. And now on top of that, we were lost. How did we get ourselves into this spot? Poor planning.
While picking our way down gullies we had no idea where they would lead—hopefully to the road in Ogden Canyon and not to a 400-foot cliff—we both silently recounted the choices we had made individually and as a group that landed us in this predicament an hour before nightfall.
I am by no means an expert or authority on avalanches, safety, and certainly not on avalanche safety. But here’s some basic advice on how to keep yourself out of situations like this and not wind up a statistic.
Take a class. Take two, or three even, from a professional. The Utah Avalanche Center lists all local classes online, as do most regional avalanche centers. I had taken a Level One class previous to this day, and obviously it didn’t make me an expert and it won’t make you one either.
What does it mean when the snow is “noisy”? Is it a sign that your skins are gobbing up with snow? Learn to ask questions like these while also understanding the possible implications are real-world experiences that are best learned in the field from the pros. There is no substitute for hands-on experience.
Read the avalanche report every day. Even if you don’t plan on being in the backcountry, you never know when you’ll have the bright idea to take a quick lap into the sidecountry, which is no more or less dangerous than a zone you can only access from a helicopter. Anywhere that is not maintained by ski patrol is backcountry, plain and simple.
In addition to reading the daily avalanche reports, reading books about avalanches is incredibly helpful to understand the language in those updates, as well as informed decision making in the wilderness. My favorite is Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper. I make a habit of reading it cover to cover each year before the ski season starts.
One of the most important chapters in this book is on the human factor. The nexus of this is that even when armed with the proper gear, current avalanche reports, etc, we still make choices of what and where to ski. Sometimes, the worst choices can be the ones we don’t make. That day outside Snowbasin I made the choice to not make a choice by not challenging my partner sooner on if he knew where we were going. Nowadays, I am routinely the devil’s advocate for any choice my touring party makes. If they don’t like it I’m happy to find a group that appreciates being challenged and confident in our decisions.
Choose touring partners wisely. Friends of friends have a way of latching onto groups, as well as buddies visiting from out of town. With each personality added, the group dynamic can and will change, and with that decision making does too. Studies show humans, when travelling in large groups, succumb to a safety in numbers false sense of security, impacting decision making immensely. Be on the watch for that, as there is a balance to safety and numbers and group mentality, which can also make it tough for timid group members to speak up about their concerns. I make a habit of asking each and every person how they feel about a route or decision multiple times throughout the day away from the larger group for this reason.
Get the right gear, and know how to use it. As outdoor enthusiasts one thing we love as much as the outdoors themselves: gear shopping. For years the holy trinity of safety gear was a beacon, shovel, and probe. Since backpacks with an inflatable airbag to keep avalanche victims above the snowpack in a slide have become increasingly available, most people consider these a necessity as well. I’ve used both the ABS Vario, as well as the Black Diamond Halo. Both companies make multiple models that fit a day’s gear inside and offer an extra margin of safety if and when you need to “pull the cord” and create a “halo” around your head while you float above the snowpack.
Hopefully you’ve had the proper training and education to make smart decisions and the only time your airbag inflates is accidentally, on the skin track, like my friend Matt in the accompanying photo. If this type of pack isn’t in your budget, Black Diamond also makes Avalung packs, which offer a means to exhale carbon monoxide away from your face should you become buried. I hope the only time your or I have to use this safety gear is for practice, which I do often. And you should, too.
None of this is meant to scare, but rather prepare you. Backcountry recreation is incredibly fun when you are smart and attentive, plus it’s a great way to get exercise and build partnerships with touring partners. Know before you go, and get some fresh turns for me!