By Dave Zinn EBS Contributor
Show up on time, break trail all day, always wear a big smile and bring snacks for everyone in the group—these are some specific steps to becoming a desirable backcountry skiing and riding partner. Many people are considering the backcountry as a fun alternative to local ski areas, accelerating a trend that began well before COVID-19. Unlike sliding around a ski area, winter backcountry travel requires avalanche related skills and a team-oriented mindset. More important than snacks, becoming a good partner on a backcountry tour requires mental and physical preparation and a curious mind.
The fundamentals matter in skiing and riding, and they matter in avalanche safety. Flashy new touring gear is nice, but modern rescue equipment is essential. Every person in the team must have a 3-antenna digital beacon, an avalanche probe and a metal shovel designed for avalanche rescue. Avalanche accidents become tragedies every winter because the victims or their partners do not have the essential avalanche rescue tools or training. Your local shop can help you make the appropriate selections.
After getting the proper gear, an avalanche course can teach you how to use it, how to identify terrain where avalanches occur, interpret the local avalanche forecast, search for instability with snowpack assessment tools and make appropriate plans so you can avoid getting in trouble in the first place. Completing an avalanche class is the start of a lifetime of learning. Practice until these critical backcountry skills become second nature.
If you complete the prerequisites for a day in the backcountry and all the subtleties of the snowpack still escape you, don’t worry. These subtlies are what make a lifetime of learning about snow so interesting. Develop the vital skill of curiosity by asking questions of your partners and yourself. If a friend tells you a slope is “good to go” or “it feels good,” ask them to explain their reasoning. Asking the “expert” in the group to show their work helps them learn too. So … jump in the snowpit, find low-angle slopes to explore and assess on danger days when the rating is Considerble or higher, question, dig, prod and tap the snowpack to learn and evolve.
A day in the backcountry is exhausting when everything goes well. Responding effectively when the brown stuff hits the fan requires physical and mental toughness. You are your partners’ only chance of survival if an avalanche buries them. Outside help is too far away to change any outcomes. Becoming the partner we all deserve requires a professional mindset, staying calm(ish), staying in shape and diligently practicing rescue skills. Your team’s lives depend on it.
Before venturing out, consider the gear, skills and fitness you need before standing at the top of a backcountry run. The mental and physical health benefits of exploring our public lands in the winter are great, but the consequences of mistakes can be high. Preparation and a conservative mindset can smooth the learning process as you enter the world of backcountry skiing and riding. And, please, don’t forget the snacks.
Dave Zinn is the Avalanche Forecaster for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.