11 Things to Know Before You Head into the Backcountry

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Advice from avalanche instructor and heli-ski guide Lel Tone

Last winter was a remarkable one for a few reasons. Record-setting storms and snowfall totals offered endless powder days from Tahoe to Colorado to Vermont. But another stat also proved last winter was one for the books: 12 people were killed in avalanches in this country during the 2016-17 winter season, one of the lowest numbers in decades, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. (The average number of avalanche fatalities in the U.S. for the past 10 winters is 27, per the CAIC.) In Utah, there were zero avalanche deaths last winter, the first time that’s happened in 26 years.

The number of skiers and riders heading into the backcountry continues to grow.  According to SnowSports Industries America (SIA), the number of people backcountry skiing and splitboarding increased 21 percent between 2015 and 2016. U.S. Forest Service research predicts skiing in undeveloped terrain will increase by up to 106 percent by 2060. Backcountry ski equipment sales have also spiked, growing 14 percent in the last year, according to SIA.

So, as more and more people prepare to head into the backcountry this winter, how can we help ensure safe travel? It’s all about good decision-making, says Lel Tone, co-founder of Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education in Avalanche and Snow Safety, or S.A.F.E. A.S., which provides avalanche awareness courses tailored to women. We asked Tone, who’s a Squaw Valley ski patroller, Alaskan heli-ski guide and AIARE-trained avalanche instructor, for smart tips every skier or rider should know to help them make good decisions in the backcountry.

Lel Tone

Lel Tone is the co-founder of S.A.F.E. A.S., a Squaw Valley ski patroller, an Alaskan heli-ski guide and an AIARE-trained avalanche instructor. (Photo Credit: Jen Schmidt)

Read the avalanche forecast—even when you’re not going skiing. Get familiar with your local avalanche forecast center. It’s a one-stop shop for everything you need to know to increase your chances for a successful day in the backcountry. Make a habit of reading the avalanche forecast all season long to see how the current weather is affecting the snowpack. Go to avalanche.org to get linked to all the avalanche centers in the United States. And there are some cool apps that do much of the same—check out the Avalanche Forecast app.

Consider taking an avy awareness course first. An avalanche awareness course can be a great place to start before you invest in a full Avalanche Level 1 course, which is a three-day commitment. There’s a great free program called Know Before You Go. You can actually request, via that website, a professional to come and do a free clinic for your school or workplace. Or check out AvTraining.org to find educational providers in your area.

Decide on a Plan A. Then set a Plan B and a Plan C. Talk about your group’s objectives before you head out on a tour. Make sure you’re all aligned and you’re choosing partners you can trust with your life. Pick an objective that’s a good plan for that day, depending on the weather, the snowpack and your group. Have a plan A, B and C. What if a storm comes in and you can’t go ski that gnarly chute? What can you ski instead? Or maybe it’s not a good day to go into the backcountry at all, and you should ski inbounds or go cross-country skiing instead.

backcountry skiiers

Double-check your gear. Then check it again. Have the essential safety gear: beacon, shovel and probe, and know how to use them. Make sure the batteries in your beacon are fresh. Get those things set the night before. Show up at the trailhead with your skins on your skis already. While others are getting ready, you can do a beacon check on everyone. Doing a proper beacon check at the trailhead helps sets the tone for safety. 

Rethink the skin track. If you’re going up a skin track that’s already been put in, it’s important not to just blindly follow. Did the people who set the skin track before you know anything about avalanche terrain and hazards? Notice whether you’re skinning up through a gully underneath a big slide path, be aware of your surroundings and clue into the signs Mother Nature is giving you. Look for these red flags: cracking, collapsing, or a whoomping sound in the snowpack, recent avalanche activity, wind loading and strong winds, warming temperatures, and recent snowfall. If you observe these indicators, it’s time to have a conversation about whether to turn around or rethink your plan.

Skin track while backcountry skiing

Learn to spot and avoid avalanche terrain. We look at avalanche terrain with three subsets: incline, aspect and slope configuration. Avalanches usually occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Notice the slope aspect as it relates to wind and sun. And watch for the slope’s configuration—a lot of avalanches occur on the convexities, the steeper spots and the rollovers. Having a good eyeball for avalanche terrain is something you’ll learn in an avalanche course.

It’s harder to make good decisions when you’re cold, wet or hungry. It can be as simple as packing an extra pair of gloves in your backpack and a warm, dry layer to put on at the top of the climb. Find a pack with pockets on the waist belt, so you can down some gels or eat a piece of chocolate on the skin track. Have a tubed hydration system so you can drink water on the fly. All of this helps you be a better decision maker.

Don’t just rely on a snow pit. What we’re finding in avalanche education is digging a snow pit shouldn’t be the one thing that gives you a red or green light to go. Digging a pit and assessing the results takes a lot of practice and Level 1 or Level 2 avalanche training. So, read the avalanche forecast ahead of time to get an idea of what to look for in your snow pits. Then, practice finding the layers in the snowpack yourself. But really good planning and decision-making is often what’s going to keep you safe out there, not simply digging a pit.

That said, know what the snowpack is doing. But you do need to understand what the snowpack layering is like: Do you have a strong layer over a weak layer? If you do, that’s an upside-down cake and you’ve got a problem. The avalanche center will tell you everything you need to know about the particular avalanche problem—persistent weak layers, wind slabs, storm slabs. They will tell you what you need to look out for. Forecasts are much more targeted now than they used to be. 

splitboarder in the backcountry

Travel one at time. But in close proximity. Certain travel techniques can help keep you safer in the backcountry. Ski one at a time; that way if something happens, there’s somebody with eyes on who’s able to start a rescue. Regroup in safe spots. Ski the terrain in shorter pitches from one island of safety to the next. Always keep visual or voice contact with your partners. Ease onto a slope, rather than hucking yourself off a cornice. Make sure you get out of the way at the bottom of a run. Never ski right above someone.

Don’t let your Instagram feed sway your decision-making. One of the things to be really hyper aware of are the human factors, things within our personalities that lead us to make poor decisions. If we’re more aware of them, maybe we can recognize them when they rear their ugly heads. An easy way to remember them is this acronym called FACETS: familiarity, acceptance, consistency, expert halo, tracks and social facilitation. Do you have powder fever or summit fever or are you trying to impress someone in the group? Are you trusting someone else’s call because they’re more experienced than you, or because they’ve skied this run before? Everyone has veto power, so be willing and able to speak your mind if something doesn’t feel right.

Editor’s Note: These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Related: Expert Advice: Avalanches, Part 1: The Basics
Expert Advice: Avalanches, Part 2: Snow Tests
Expert Advice: Avalanches, Part 3: Reducing Risk 
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