By Eric Knoff Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center
1. BEFORE YOU GO
Being prepared starts at home, with making sure your equipment is operating correctly and knowing how to use it.
Beacon, shovel, probe
One often-overlooked detail is the lifespan of your avalanche transceiver batteries. Replace them at the start of every winter season, no matter how much use they received the previous winter. Know how to check the transceiver battery power, and when it drops below 50 percent, change them out. Never use rechargeable batteries in a transceiver – they wear out quickly and do poorly in the cold. In addition, an avalanche shovel and probe always accompany your transceiver. Make sure these important rescue tools assemble properly and weren’t damaged during their hibernation in the gear closet.
Before heading into avalanche terrain, do at least an hour or two of avalanche transceiver practice with your backcountry partners. Being familiar with all your equipment before you leave the house is a great way to ensure you make it home for dinner.
Gathering valuable backcountry information only takes a minute and is easily done at home. Know the phone number and website address of the local avalanche center (see footer). Stay updated on current local avalanche and weather conditions. Check the schedule of avalanche education classes offered in your community, and take at least one course geared toward avalanche education and safe backcountry travel.
2. AT THE TRAILHEAD
Preparation continues once you reach the trailhead.
Make a plan
Communicate with your partners and make a plan for that specific day. This plan should be made around each individual’s riding ability and from the information you received at home concerning weather and avalanche conditions. Know if the area you are riding in has cell phone coverage and which members of the team are carrying a cell phone. Communication between partners is often neglected and can play a huge role in the outcome of the day.
When a plan has been made and everyone is comfortable with the agenda, a transceiver check on every member needs to be conducted. This simple procedure only takes a minute. Turn all transceivers to transmit. One member then turns his transceiver to receive and checks for the loud beeping and blinking lights as he gets close to each individual. After transceivers have been turned on and checked, they are strapped to the body under at least one piece of clothing. They must always be turned on at the car and should never go into packs or on the outside of riding apparel. Other equipment checks on probes, shovels and first aid kits should also be done at the car.
3. Have a fun, safe day out
Use your preparations and knowledge to make it a safe day on the slopes. Terrain recognition and good route finding are essential skills for backcountry travel. Venturing into avalanche terrain requires clear communication and a team mentality.
One at a time
Exposing only one skier/rider at a time on avalanche prone slopes is imperative. Putting more than one person on a slope dramatically increases the chance of triggering an avalanche. With one rider on the slope, the rest of the team must be in a safe zone, with a clear view of the rider at all times. This will allow a rapid response in case an avalanche does occur.
Understanding of terrain
Recognition of potentially dangerous slopes, terrain traps and islands of safety are also integral to traveling in avalanche terrain.
Weather influences daily planning and preparations. Rapid weather changes can rapidly change the stability of the snowpack. Consistent temperature observations, wind direction and precipitation should be routinely noted. It doesn’t need to be snowing for the avalanche hazard to be increasing. Strong winds can load slopes quickly, making them unpredictable and dangerous. Staying focused and aware of your surroundings will allow you to make safe decisions throughout the day.
Applying simple preparations to a well-tuned baseline of skills is an effective way to ensure a safe and fun backcountry experience.
Eric Knoff is a forecaster with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. This piece was adapted from one originally written for the Montana Snowmobile Association. Learn more, and read the current avalanche advisory at mtavalanche.com.