It's been puking in the Alps since Christmas and avalanche conditions have been some of the worst in recent memory. Planks cannot stress enough the importance of avalanche training and of having the correct safety equipment, before venturing off-piste, or deeper into the backcountry. But, even with all the above, there’s still plenty of risk... being prepared demands preparation and planning too. We called on our top backcountry athletes to share their rituals and habits for getting themselves ready for a day skiing out of bounds.
What’s your routine the evening and morning before a day in the backcountry?
I'm always checking the battery level in my transceiver the evening before a day in the backcountry. If you find out that the battery level is low, you always have time to buy new ones, if you check it in the morning in the mountains it's a bit more complicated. I always replace the battery if it is below 70%.
Every evening before going into the backcountry I check all my gear, pack my bag for the day, charge batteries and double-check the avalanche bulletin and weather forecast. In the morning, I like to have time to relax and mentally prepare for the day.
Weather and avalanche condition checks, then gear check and transceiver battery check (fluffing around trying to find new batteries on the morning of a mission creates time pressure and can make you miss or forget something else).
What information do you pull together?
I always check multiple factors. The amount of fresh snow, the avalanche danger, the temperature, the wind and its direction.
I watch the freezing level, wind direction, sun, amount of snow, and the avalanche forecast. This dictates where and what I am going to ski for the day. The goal is always to get the best quality skiing we can while never exposing ourselves to unnecessary risk.
Weather for the day, what happened the previous night to get an idea of the snow conditions, avalanche risk and reported activity. What is available at the hut I'm going to if I'm going to one. If I'm going with others, we chat about the equipment we are taking so we are on the same page (there's no point taking equipment that others are not, as you want to stay as a group, so you need to access the same terrain and you don’t want to carry extra weight). If I’m going with someone new we make our experience level clear to one another.
Where do you get it from?
I look for information in many sources, most often on the website of the resort, in weather apps. I also use a very cool app called White Risk, where you can find a lot of detailed analysis, I highly recommend it.
I get my information from local forecasts, Avalanche Canada, the local avalanche forecasters (who are out there digging test pits every day), and a solid group of locals who share their conditions report and observations from the day. Along with what I'm seeing out in the mountains.
Various weather websites to get a broad picture of the situation. The local avalanche advisory. If it’s at my local resort I talk to the patrollers who normally really good at sharing info. I also ask people who have been to that area recently, social media is a good place to look for info on the area or people who may have been there.
Photo by: Olek Pobikrowski
Do you have any rituals with your equipment?
I have a little phobia of riding with my backpack open and losing everything I have in it, so before I drop-in, I always check 5 times whether all pockets are well closed haha.
Every fall I do 2-4 days of heavy beacon exercises so that it feels second nature to use. The last thing you want is to panic when an accident happens.
At the end of each day, I put all essential gear like my transceiver back into my pack so there is no chance to forget it on the next mission. I always keep zip ties, a pocket knife in and duct tape in my pack, with these 3 things you can perform a lot of different first aid. You can also use a balaclava or a spare layer as bandages.
Photo by: Felix Abraham
And, what are your sense checks before dropping into a line or accessing an area you’re unfamiliar with?
I concentrate mainly on observing the snow. If there are visible tracks, I pay attention to whether any cracks have appeared. When passing through easier, safer terrain, I try to make a few turns by pushing hard on the skis in the turn and observing the stability of the snow.
Every time we ride a new zone we dig a full depth snow pit to assess the layers and how well they are bonding together. Next, we do a stability test on a similar aspect slope to the one we are riding to make sure it is safe. We talk about lines with each other and look for any red flags that present themselves.
The last sense check I do is I ask myself this question “if something were to go wrong here, would I look foolish for dropping?” If the answer is yes I re-think the line.
Having the necessary equipment and knowing how to use it is vital. Knowledge of how to travel in the backcountry safety is essential. But, as important as both, is being well prepared for time in the mountains. In this case, three is the magic number:
There’s no such thing as too much information –
Know what’s happening to the variables which impact avalanche danger such as the freezing level, wind direction, sun and temperature, fresh snow depth, and the avalanche forecast. A lot of this information is available through easy to use apps and websites, but local knowledge is always more relevant. Connect with other local backcountry skiers and professionals through forums and WhatsApp groups and if you’re in a resort talk to the patrollers.
Good rituals become great habits –
Whether it’s annual activities like spending a couple of days practicing your transceiver skills or attending a first aid course before winter kicks off, or daily rituals like checking the batteries in your transceiver or unpacking and repacking your backpack, it’s a good idea to force habits which prepare you for the backcountry.
Preparation doesn’t end at your front door –
Keep your wits about you. Continually assess the snow’s stability and keep an eye peeled for the avalanche red flags. And finally, before you drop-in, ask yourself “If something were to go wrong here, would I look foolish for dropping?”.