A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Skiing
Whether you’re a first timer catching a massive storm in Telluride, Colorado, or a seasoned local in the Pacific Northwest, skiers and boarders are pushing beyond resort boundaries and into the backcountry more and more.
With increased backcountry skiing across the country, these off-piste slopes are becoming the winter playground for an ever increasing group of riders. Along with that overload of skiers exploring resort accessed side country or full blown ski touring adventures, comes an increased risk for avalanche danger.
Editor’s Note: This Beginner’s Guide is the first in a series this season on backcountry riding skills, training, and gear. Stay tuned for more as we test some of the best backcountry skiing gear on the market, talk with professional athletes and coaches, and train for the Wasatch Powder Keg ski-mountaineering race later this winter.
Whether you’re exiting a resort boundary gate or hiking or skinning up from a trail-head, backcountry skiing requires a different mindset, and whole new set of skills and tools than your typical resort day. If you’re planning on getting out to an off-piste powder stash, now is the time to start learning (or reviewing) some essential backcountry skills and putting together your out-of-bounds tool kit.
Know Your Gear
At a minimum, you need an avalanche beacon, collapsible snow shovel, and probe whenever you’re out for a run that is not actively avalanche controlled. Learn how to use your kit, and practice with it. We carry the Pieps DSP Pro Beacon ($420) when we’re out touring, because we’ve found it to be one of the most user friendly, and very easy to learn with.
When we’re out in the backcountry, we always carry a small first aid kit, a multitool that is equipped with the right bits and drivers for our ski gear, and back up food and water – enough for longer than we plan on being out. A decent pack to carry it all in is also essential. Our favorite for short tours this season is Osprey’s new Kamber 22. We’ll dig deeper into backcountry specific skis, boots, and apparel soon.
Once you’ve started piecing your backcountry kit together, and gotten your self familiarized with some of the specialized safety tools, it’s time to really start training. The gold standard for learning about backcountry safety is the American Institute for Avalanche & Education’s (AIARE) Avalanche Level 1 Course. No matter where your home mountain is, there is likely an AIARE certified instructor nearby. If you’re not quite ready to to hit the backcountry hard, or just need to brush up on some skills, many mountain guide services offer beginner courses that introduce you to backcountry skiing skills and decision making processes.
Check The Forecast
Every morning our ritual consists of coffee, avocado toast, and a visit to Avalanche.org. This site is sponsored by the American Avalanche Association and Backcountry Access. It serves as a aggregator for all avalanche forecastingaround the country. Whether we’re skiing at the resort, hitting up a secret pow stash, or stuck in the office, the forecast tools keep snow safety on our minds every day. More importantly, reviewing snow conditions helps you have a bigger picture of what the snow pack is looking like over the course of the season. Knowing there is a dangerous layer of snow from a few weeks ago that is still factoring in to danger ratings is essential knowledge when you step into your bindings.
In the backcountry we like to remember two acronyms to aid in the decision making process. Go-NoGo decisions can have life or death consequences when you step out on an exposed ridge line or chute, so having every aid in making the call is very important. The first acronym deals with technical details of the slope you’re about to ski, and is termed ALP TRUTh:
A: Avalanche. Has there been avalanche activity on you chosen slope or similar ones in the last 48-hours?
L: Loading. Has there been significant snow, rain, or wind that could have added extra weight to a weak layer recently?
P: Path. Is there a noticeable path that a potential avalanche could take?
T: Terrain Trap. Are there features on the terrain you’re skiing like cliffs, gullies, or trees that could make the consequences of getting caught more dangerous?
R: Rating. What was the danger rating of today’s avalanche forecast?
U: Unstable Snow. Have you seen or heard signs of instability? Cracks that propagate in the snow, collapsing snow, or a whoomphing sound (yes unstable makes a distinguishable Whoomph! when it shifts) can signal danger.
Th: Thaw. Have the temperatures recently let to a melting event?
The second acronym, F.A.C.E.T.S. (pronounced faa-sets), was coined by Ian McCammon to describe ways in which our judgement can be compromised:
F: Familiarity. Is this run or face something you’ve skied many times? Does that contribute to overconfidence?
A: Acceptance. How much danger is your group willing to risk in search of that perfect turn or a good day?
C: Consistency. Are you someone who always sticks to the plan? Faced with conditions that aren’t conducive to your summit plans, can you make changes to your route that are safer?
E: Expert Halo. Are you with a group that has a stand-out, more experienced member? Are you scared of speaking up if you don’t agree with their assessment?
T: Tracks/Scarcity. How long has it been since your last pow turn or deep backcountry mission. Is your “stoke” level affecting your judgment on what is safe?
S: Social Facillitation. Can you be egged on by your friends to hit the pow? Peer pressure is a real danger in avalanche terrain when your group is excited.
While these two acronyms won’t in themselves keep you out of danger, knowing and applying them will help you make responsible decisions while you’re out backcountry skiing. Whether you’re just hitting the back side of the resort for a little side country lap, or heading out for an all day adventure, re-evaluating your objective frequently is paramount to staying safe.
Know Before You Go
Our friends at the Utah Avalanche Center put together this awesome video. If you take away nothing else from our guide, a little bit of awareness goes a long way.