With the lure of backcountry skiing and snowboarding on the rise, more and more people are venturing off the well-trodden slopes of their favorite resorts and are headed out of bounds instead. While exploring these remote areas is always challenging and exciting, it can be dangerous too, as the chance of triggering an avalanche increases dramatically.
But don't assume you have to be pursuing your favorite mountain sport in the backcountry to potentially get caught up in an avalanche zone. In 2019 alone, skiers were caught in avalanches that occurred at both the Crans-Montana resort in Switzerland and Breckenridge in Colorado too. Those stories only helped to underscore the potential dangers that avalanches pose, even when we're in areas that are traditionally considered safe.
In recent years, the number of snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, mountaineers, and winter hikers who have suffered serious injuries or have even been killed due to avalanches has jumped significantly. That makes it all the more important to understand the dangers and be better prepared to handle the consequences.
Here are some tips to help you to be safer in the backcountry.
Learn Techniques to Help Survive an Avalanche
The absolute best way to learn avalanche safety is to take a course on the subject. Most outdoor athletes can stick to what is often referred to as the "recreational track," which focuses on learning avalanche awareness, and both basic and advanced rescue techniques. This can prepare us to travel more safely in areas where avalanches are common by giving us the skills and techniques necessary to recognize the danger signs ahead of time and avoid avalanche zones altogether.
Should you find yourself or others do get caught up in an avalanche, the search and rescue techniques can play a vital role in saving your own life or that of others. These courses demonstrate the proper use of avalanche safety equipment, which can dramatically cut down on the time spent searching for someone.
Mountain guides and ski instructors will of course want to take a more professional level course. The certifications necessary for operating in avalanche-prone areas generally require individuals to have in-depth knowledge of how to avoid dangerous situations altogether or conduct a search and rescue operation should something go wrong. Those courses are often paired with a Wilderness First Responder course for administering first aid as needed too.
There are literally dozens of places to take an avalanche safety course. Visit Avalanche.org to learn more.
Carry the Right Gear
Carrying the right gear with you on any outdoor adventure is always important, but even more so if you're venturing into an avalanche zone. If you want to stay safe, and potentially save the lives of others, there are the items you should take with you.
- Avalanche Beacon: Sometimes referred to transceivers, an avalanche beacon is an electronic device that is capable of both sending and receiving alert tones that can be used to locate a person who is buried. In normal use, the transceiver is turned to "transmit" mode, which sends out the tone. Those who are part of the search team will set their devices to "receive" mode, which allows them to hear that tone and locate the missing person much more quickly.
- Avalanche Probes: Made from aluminum or carbon fiber, an avalanche probe resembles a collapsible ski pole, although they tend to be considerably longer. The probe can be used to locate a missing person who is buried in the snow by pushing down through the rubble to pinpoint their exact position. When used in conjunction with a beacon, the probe can greatly speed up the discovery process.
- Avalanche Shovel: This one is a bit self-explanatory, but most backcountry skiers carry a collapsible shovel that they can use to help dig out someone who has been buried in the snow.
- Back with Avalanche Air Bag: If you do find yourself traveling in the backcountry during the winter, you're more than likely going to bring a backpack along with you. Many winter-specific packs these days come with the option of adding an avalanche airbag. These device sense when you've been caught up in an avalanche and just like the airbag in your car, they'll automatically deploy. The inflated bag can help you stay on top of the snow, rock, and other debris, greatly enhancing your chance of survival and keeping you on top of the cascading rubble.
Let the Experts Teach You Avalanche Safety
- The U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center is a good place to start. Various web pages cover the basics, including the type of terrain, snow pack, wind and weather that trigger avalanches. There's also a list of links to regional websites to find out more about the current avalanche conditions throughout the U.S.
- The American Institute for Avalanche Rescue has links to information about courses throughout the US that offer knowledge and tools you'll need to manage your risk in avalanche terrain.
- The Utah Avalanche Center Web site has the answers to some very common questions.
- Avalanche.org lists the avalanche centers in mountainous areas in the U.S. and in Canadian provinces.
- The Canadian Avalanche Society has an online course called Avalanche First Response. It's a smart way to learning more about protecting yourself.
- Colorado's Rockies are among the most popular mountains for skiers, snowboarders, winter walkers and snowmobilers who like to explore the backcountry. The Colorado Avalanche Center offers regular forecasts and educational programs throughout the state.
Tips from Ski Partrollers for Inbounds Extreme Skiing & Snowboarding at Resorts
Click on Top Resorts With Inbounds Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Terrain to find more places for expert skiers and snowboarders to enjoy backcountry-style terrain inbounds at ski resorts. If you're not sure what backcountry skiing is outside ski resort ropes, visit What is Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding.