By Zach d’Arbeloff
I have used a few terms in this article that casual skiiers may not be familiar with. You can check the list of key terms at the end if you get confused!
*Update 12/30/14* I realized that I missed an opportunity to share appropriate safety gear when going into the backcountry. Please see the recommendations at the bottom to get an idea of the gear you need to have before adventuring into avalanche terrain.
*Update 1/6/14* A lot of publicity has been grabbed by the death of two U.S. Ski Team Racers this past week near the U.S. training facilities in Soelden, Austria. While our hearts go out to the families involved and the members of the U.S. Ski Team, we feel it is important to mention that the incident happened during a period of heavy snow and an high avalanche risk warning was posted the day they decided to venture into uncontrolled terrain. This horrible tragedy is a reminder to all avid and aspiring backcountry skiers to pay attention to these warnings and make smart and safe decisions, no matter how good a skier you are.
It is easy to see why the last decade has brought such a boom in Backcountry skiing. Developments in touring and avalanche safety technology have allowed more people to get out and ski under their own power than ever before. It is an opportunity to ski some big terrain and deep powder without the lift lines and the crowds, but it also presents unique, and very real, dangers.
On average, 28 people die every year in the U.S. due to avalanches in the backcountry. Not all are skiers – many are on snowmobiles – but for the most part, these deaths are readily avoidable with the proper education. Given the quickly rising popularity of backcountry skiing and sledding, this number could only go up. Knowing when it is safe to venture into uncontrolled territory is crucial; as is proper knowledge of what to do when you get there. Whether it is digging avalanche pits, looking at the snow report, performing sidecuts, or any of a myriad of other safety-oriented moves, being prepared and educated will save your life.
Last year in the Tetons, there were three avalanche deaths. One of them was directly out of bounds from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, a slide in the uncontrolled but easily accessed “sidecountry.” All of them took place the day after a big dump onto a weak layer that had been sun baked for at least a week. Avoiding these situations is Avalanche awareness 101, and none of the skiers who died should have even been out in an uncontrolled area on a day with such high avalanche danger. These are easily avoided mistakes, and as not everyone will go to the proper lengths to educate themselves, a better job needs to be done of presenting the issues.
You can imagine my disappointment when my attention was recently directed to an article, suggested for repost on our blog, which came from the New York Times. Titled “Getting Into the Backcountry Safely,” I was hoping for some tips for newer backcountry enthusiasts, maybe a review of what gear is recommended, or at least a list of issues to worry about when heading out of bounds. As backcountry skiing becomes more and more popular – and more people spurn lift access for hard earned powder – people need to be educated about the proper procedures that should be involved with an activity that is so highly dangerous. Given the national readership of the NYT, this would have been the perfect opportunity to present avalanche safety to the masses.
Instead, what I was presented with was a list of advertisements for various overpriced backcountry tours across the country. The NYT offerings ranged from Bolton, VT to California and British Colombia, yet provided an extremely limited (and detail-less) account of what these classes are, why they are so important, and just how easy they are to find.
Not many people know this, but there are very specific levels of Avalanche certification (depending on the organization you certify through), ranging from the level 1, which is focused on personal safety and decision making in the outdoors, all the way up to “Continued Professional Development” courses for those already certified at level 3, the guides you would encounter on Heli-skiing operations on big, dangerous mountains in Alaska and BC. In fact, the NYT article only mentions that there even IS certification once. The height of my disbelief was when I encountered the ad for the “Ski Fantasy Camp,” for the small price of $3,500 at Jackson Hole. Now, having lived in the Tetons, I know that there are no less than six different agencies that offer Avalanche certification courses on both sides of Teton Pass for less than $300 (and general backcountry awareness classes/tours for even less). We have a free avalanche awareness night in Driggs, where the local ski patrollers and Jackson Hole Avalanche team analyze the development of the current season’s snow pack, offer brief reminders on the important pieces of safety to remember when strapping on the skins, and hand out free stuff as an incentive to attend.
Frustrated by the article, I decided to see how long it took me to find a list of Avalanche course providers across the country. After roughly thirty seconds on the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) website, I found their convenient and prominent list of “AIARE Course Providers” which led me to a list of hundreds of different places that offer AIARE certified courses, taking place literally anywhere people ski. On top of that, AIARE isn’t even the only Avalanche Safety certifier in the country. Yet, none of this was even briefed upon in the article.
People die every year in the backcountry. While that might never change, we can certainly take easy precautions to put ourselves in better situations. Backcountry skiing strikes a precarious balance between fun and danger and is not for the faint of heart or the mediocre skier. It is an activity that requires a high understanding of your surroundings, the proper safety gear, and an ability to make an educated decision about when it is safe to head into uncontrolled territory. Most of the people that die do so because they have made bad decisions about when and where to ski. Backcountry skiing is not a commercial business; it’s a pastime, just like hiking or biking, only more dangerous. To ignore the ability to provide educational value in favor of advertising a few overpriced backcountry clinics does the sport no good.
“In-Bounds:” Inside the confines of an avalanche controlled resort. All ski resorts are Avalanche controlled by the local ski patrol, often involving bombing and setting off avalanches on purpose.
“Side country:” Backcountry areas accessible from resorts with partial lift-access, usually through a gate. Most resorts require you to exit through a gate that has a beacon check attached to it.
“Uncontrolled:” Denotes that the area you are entering is not avalanche controlled by trained ski patrollers. You are skiing at your own risk in these areas.
“Touring:” The act of going uphill on skis. Also called “alpine touring” or “skinning.”
Zach’s Gear Recommendations for Backcountry Skiing:
- Probe, Shovel, and Backpack.
- BCA Tracker DTS or Tracker 2 (have not used the Tracker 3)
- ABS Vario Avalanche Rescue Pack (optional – studies show reduction in Avalanche deaths with use of ABS packs)
- Men’s Weathertop (Great outerlayer with ventilation for touring)
- Men’s Hydro Zip T (Perfect sweat wicking base layer)
Photos and avalanche information taken from jhavalanche.org.