This is for people who are looking for a bit more information on backcountry travel. We highly recommend checking out The Mountaineers Books for some great reading on not only Avalanche skills, but also safe travel techniques, weather, and mountaineering tips that carry over into the snow sports we enjoy so much. No matter your abilities as a rider, you still need to practice backcountry safety.
This site does not suffice as avalanche training. This is merely intended to provide general information. Nothing substitutes for formal instruction, practice and experience. When you enter the backcountry, you assume all responsibility of your safety, and the safety of your group.
Treewell safety is a major concern in the PNW. Big trees with a lot of green means really deep tree wells. That coupled with the heavy snow we experience combines to make getting out of a treewell when you are upside down very difficult! The best way to deal with this is avoidance! See the link below for some tips and tricks to keep you safe out there.
Respect in the backcountry is a MUST
“Between 55 and 65 percent of victims buried in the open are killed, and only 80 percent of the victims remaining on the surface survive.” (McClung, p.177)
Backcountry terrain is dangerous. Generally, backcountry areas have not had any sort of preventative avalanche control work performed. This risk, along with the other hazards (cliffs, unobscured obstacles, changing snow and weather conditions, sink-holes, etc.) requires respect, knowledge, equipment, and practice.
Realize that your actions affect not just yourself, but also every other member of your party and potentially any other winter enthusiasts who may be required to help in the case of an accident. If you feel something is above your ability or knowledge level, it is your responsibility to make the wise judgment and inform your group.
Knowledge is the key to safer backcountry excursions. Knowledge of your planned ascent and descent routes, knowledge of the general area you plan on exploring, knowledge of your equipment and how it functions, knowledge of recent weather patterns and future weather forecasts, and knowledge of snow science/snow safety. All of these pieces play an integral role in your safe return from your journey into the backcountry. With the proper knowledge, you can make the proper judgment.
Terrain, Snowpack, Trigger, and Weather are three important variables to assess when determining the likelihood of an avalanche. These variables are constantly changing, and it is up to you to continually assess these factors. Decision making (another changing variable) is extremely important.
Terrain: Slopes 35 to 45 degrees are the most likely to slide. Also, wide open slopes with little trees (anchors) slopes below cornices, and convex shaped slopes are considered “danger zones”. Learn what these dangerous terrains are and how to cross them safely.
Snowpack: Snowpacks are a series of layers of snow. Some of the layers are hard and strong while some are soft and weak. The snowpack is unstable when a harder stronger layer sets on top of a softer weaker layer. The soft weak layer can’t support the hard strong layer above it. Watch the weather patterns over several weeks so you understand the layers beneath you. Learn how to dig a snow pit, and evaluate the snow pack.
Trigger: An avalanche must be triggered. This is created by extra weight causing the weak layer to collapse.You could be a trigger.
Weather: Weather is another important variable. Changing weather can quickly increase instability. Be sure to continually assess the weather throughout your trip to determine its effect on the stability of the snowpack. Even the most minor weather changes can change your day from a safe one, to a dangerous one.
When in the backcountry, you should ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS carry a beacon (turned on and transmitting), shovel, probe, and first aid kit. Other safety items are also suggested. These items are considered your seatbelt in the backcountry. While they cannot guarantee safety, they do increase your chances of survival quite a deal (with proper use).
A beacon is a device that transmits a signal. If a victim is buried wearing a beacon, survivors can switch their beacons to receive the signal and locate the victim. The probe is used to ensure the location of the victim under the snow before digging. You don’t want to waste time digging to find that you miss-read your beacon and the victim is actually 10 feet away. (Efficient digging is a MUST and also takes practice and experience)
There are many different beacons, shovels and probes on the market today. All have their advantages and disadvantages. Do research to find the best ones for you. With only a 15 minute survival time, you want to have the fastest and easiest equipment to operate.
The RECCO® Rescue System is another must in the backcountry. “The RECCO® Rescue System is two-part technology. Ski resorts and mountain rescue teams carry RECCO® detectors, which send out a search signal. RECCO® reflectors worn by skiers, riders and other outdoors people, bounce back a directional signal that directs the rescuer straight to the reflector. Unlike other technologies, multiple RECCO® reflectors on a person can improve detection.
RECCO® reflectors do not prevent avalanches, nor do they guarantee location or survival of a buried or lost person. Reflectors are also not a substitute for an avalanche rescue beacon. However, when someone needs more help than their friends can provide, RECCO® reflectors do provide another chance.”
While the RECCO® system is not a substitue for a beacon, we at Chair 2 highly suggest purchasing snow gear equiped with it. In an instance where you have become lost, stranded, or an avalanche has buried a victim without a beacon, or any of the millions of other possibilities, the RECCO system is smart to have.
Practice, Practice, PRACTICE!
You can purchase all the fancy gear, be the best skier or rider in the world, but if you don’t know how to use avalanche safety tools prior to being thrust into an avalanche situation, none of it matters.
Take an avalanche safety course so you can learn when an avalanche may occur. Practice switching your avalanche transceiver to receive the signal from another transceiver. See if you can locate a friend’s hidden transceiver in their room or in your yard. Practice extending and using your avalanche probe so you know the difference between striking a rock and striking a tree.
Alpental B.A.R.K. has created a Free Beacon Park for users to practice. For information on the Beacon Basin – Transceiver Training Park at Alpental, click here.
There are NO shortcuts to backcountry safety! Read, learn, study, & practice avalanche awareness.
Tips to Keep You Safe This Winter and for more to come:
- Take an avalanche class (see list of Education Providers). Two lecturers retired from the US Forest Service, and sponsored by the Friends of NWAC, offer free Avalanche Awareness Lectures. To schedule a talk by either lecturer, e-mail NWAC.
- Read:The Avalanche Encyclopedia (courtesy of the Utah Avalanche Center); Backcountry Skiiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering (The Mountaineers Books); Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain (By Bruce Temper); The Avalanche Handbook (By David McLung)
- Use the Avalanche and Weather Glossaries to help understand, as well as read and review the local avalanche forcast.
- Download this free checklist, and use it before you go! Check out these Avalanche Myths, from the Utah Avalanche Center and from the NWAC. Check out on-line avalanche tutorials, like that at the National Avalanche Center
- Know the North American Avalanche Danger Scale and how it applies to you, especially noting the trends in the danger levels.
- Become familiar with the NWAC Avalanche Danger Rose and what it means
- Go to this Resources link. Read, learn and apply the various information provided, including the stability correlation guide included in the Snowpack Resources section of the home page dropdown menu.
For more information on Backcountry Safety and Forecasts, please visit these sites:
McClung, David and Shaerer, Peter: The Avalanche Handbook, The Mountaineers: 1993. ISBN 0-89886-364-3
Tremper, Bruce: Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, The Mountaineers: 2008. ISBN 1-59485-084-4