Here at Alpenglow Sports, backcountry skiing is core to our existence. There is nothing better than skiing epic Tahoe backcountry powder with a good group of friends. Having said that, no ski run is worth risking your life. This winter we’ve been shaken by several local avalanche fatalities that have been influenced by a departure from our traditional bomber Sierra snow pack. While any loss of life is extremely sad, it is an opportunity to for the entire backcountry community to reassess any and all backcountry travel skills. Even though our Alpenglow crew are out virtually every morning well before sunrise, we are scared to death of avalanches. Accordingly, we exercise caution and conservative decision making, all of which are based on formal education. Below is a rambling of backcountry safety and education.
Backcountry skiing is currently exploding in popularity, and it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security because you can afford the requisite backcountry safety items OR you’ve been doing it forever. If you are new OR old to the sport, you owe it to yourself, your wife, and your family to make sure that you are AIRE level 1 and 2 avalanche course certified. If you are an outdoor industry person, check out Rich Meyer’s Industry Pro Backcountry Workshops. If you need to sign up for an avy course, Rich is a certified ski guide/AIRE level 1 and 2 instructor and does amazing work through the North American Ski Training Center. With this knowledge, you can travel in the backcountry in a safe, educated fashion.
Additionally, don’t sleep on your avalanche rescue skills. Make sure you are up to date on the latest beacon technology, excavation and probing techniques, and keep your rescue skills honed to a T. Keep rereading Snow Sense and the Avalanche Handbook by Mountaineers Books or take a avalanche refresher course. The in-depth daily forecast provided by the Sierra Avalanche Center comes complete with snow pit analysis, pictures, and videos and is a wealth of free knowledge. When it hits the fan, it’s likely that you are digging out your friend and you will need all skills possible at your disposal.
With a string of high profile avalanche fatalities this winter, the role of air bags in backcountry travel has become quite popular. While these have existed for a number of years from Mammut, ABS, Snowpulse, and Backcountry Access, we are only now embracing how vital they can be in an avalanche scenario. The air bag is another extremely viable tool in the arsenal of avalanche safety gear and within another 4-5 years they will probably be quite widespread. Industry leader Backcountry Access offers their Float Series at perhaps the most affordable price tag. If you’ve never seen an actual air bag deployment, watch the two videos below to see their effectiveness in an avalanche scenario, both courtesy of BCA.
Ultimately, the choices you make in the backcountry are up to you and your partners. Here at Alpenglow Sports, we’re of the belief that if you are educated, exercise conservative decision making, and listen to your intuition, you can ski in the backcountry in a safe and fun fashion. Live to ski (safely).