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With Great Powder Comes Great Responsibility

Photo: Wenatchee locals Eric Smith (left blue) and Steve Smith (right blue) working on companion avalanche rescue techniques during a recent Levels 1 avalanche course.

by Heather Dappen

As much as I resist admitting it to him, these last few years I have been following in my father’s footsteps by learning how to backcountry ski. I have also taken to shadowing his skin track up steep slopes, eager to tear up that alleged “boot-top powder” and shoot effortlessly down the “Far-Too-Gnar-Couloir”

In the process I’ve come to recognize that along with great powder, comes great responsibility. Both the work of getting uphill and the consequences of what can happen on the way down, is enough to take my breath away. I now realize that the angel choir I hear singing when I see the glistening white snow could easily become a funeral dirge if an avalanche were to occur. What originally looks so soft can quickly become a moving sheet with thousands of tons of cement capable of freezing you into a replica of a Han Solo carbonite statue. My own introduction into the backcountry as well as some highly publicized incidents in this area have exposed me  to both the danger of skiing out of bounds and to my ignorance about the where, how, and why of avalanches.

Realizing that my cluelessness could have major corollaries, I enlisted in an AIARE Level 1 course recently with the Northwest Mountain School in Leavenworth to get better educated about backcountry snows. This AIARE (The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) course is directed at the average backcountry skier and provides basic avalanche education and awareness. Its main goals are to help its learners make knowledgeable decisions in avalanche terrain and to help prevent avalanche accidents.

Our course was three days long (24 hours total) and time was divided between the classroom and field study (skiing) to give us a better decision-making framework for making terrain choices in a group setting. We focused on avalanche terrain recognition, travel techniques, trip planning, companion rescue, weather observations, group management, and risk reduction. The information gained from the course was valuable stuff and I’d highly recommend the sessions to anyone who plans to explore  out-of-bound terrain in winter -- whether that’s in the true backcountry or in the ‘sidecountry’ of a ski area.  I’m still a beginner at this game but, now, I feel I’m a smarter goober following my geezer of a father around. Here are some of my key insights from the weekend:

1. ‘Sidecountry’ is NO Safer than Backcountry

First things first -- even if you are just crossing over the fence at your local ski area, taking this course would be wise. There is a common misconception that accidents are unlikely in the sidecountry, but statistics prove otherwise. Ski patrol is only liable for maintaining the snow inside the boundaries of a resort so the snow 10 feet outside the boundary could be just as hazardous as snow on an untouched mountain. In fact, due to immediate lift access, people skiing the sidecountry are probably in greater jeopardy than those skiing the backcountry. Often those using lifts have not taken the time on the uphill to observe the snow conditions, slope aspect, or weather hazards and are prone to jump on slopes they know little about. So  even if you don’t consider yourself a backcountry skier but cross the resort’s boundary lines hunting for fresh snow, you need to be wise in the ways of avalanches.

Chester Marler photo: A slide that would not have been user friendly to anyone its way.

2. Suspend the Inbounds Mentality When Out-of-Bounds

Skiing inbounds has a few dangers -- people do break bones and damage joints -- but the possibility of losing your life is remote. While skiing a resort, one of the biggest concerns is the length of the lift line, because the whole point is to bag as much downhill as possible. The lifts run you back uphill in a matter of minutes -- then you come back down any run and at any pace you desire. When backcountry skiing, however, a particular descent should not be your only goal. If this is your mentality, you may be too focused on skiing the ‘gnarliest’ slope to make an educated decision about its safety. On the other hand, if you enjoy other aspects of the experience -- the trek up, views, time with friends, or the chance to relax -- you will be much more willing to make concessions about the path down. Not only is the way up part of the journey, but it is vital for analyzing and gathering information about the weather, terrain, snowpack, and the people you’re with.

3. Avoid the ‘Go Pro Complex’

Regardless of whether you carry a helmet camera, it is the complex that carries the risks. Some of the members of my group had brought along their helmet cams and were so concerned about getting radical footage of them ‘sending it’, that they were making dodgy decisions. Conditions were fairly stable during our course, but right there before us we could witness the cameras short-circuiting common sense. It seemed to me that this new form of narcissism could easily lead to tunnel vision affecting individual and group safety.

4. Find the Right Partners – It’s Worth its Weight in Gold

Different backcountry skiers have very different priorities and I left this course thinking about how interlinked safety was to skiing with the right people – people you’re comfortable with and who are comfortable skiing at your level, whatever that level might be.

Illustration from Allen and Mike's Avalanche Book (Falcon Guides).

With backcountry skiing there are so many levels of ability, fitness, interest, pace, skill, and risk tolerance. This means that the buddies you enjoy skiing with at a ski area may not be the ones who you are compatible with out of bounds. It is also important to understand the dynamics of the groups you ski with and, in the backcountry, to be on the same page as far as leadership styles and decision making. Different groups will have different ways of making decisions, different levels of aggressiveness, and different leadership styles. If you feel uncomfortable being the voice of dissent in a group, that should raise red flags that the company you’re keeping is not right for you.

5. Questioning the Expert Halo

Being a young, relatively inexperienced skier, it is easy for me to fall back on the word of what the ‘experts’ in the group tell me. Furthermore, I’ve never been that comfortable questioning the authority of a group’s leader. But this course has definitely given me some tools to ask good questions and to make sure a group discusses the very real hazards we encounter skiing wild snow. I cannot passively just ask whether a particular slope is  a ‘go or no go’ --  I need to be part of the conversation, bring up the observations we’ve made, and be confident that the actions being recommended are consistent with what we know and what we’ve observed. The course emphasized using pre-trip resources such as www.nwac.com and www.weather.gov and it is comforting to have the true experts behind these resources to fall back on if skiers in a group, once they are standing at the top of something they really want to ski, seem to be suffering from either Rapture of the Deep or Rapture of the Steep.

Illustration from Allen and Mike's Avalanche Book (Falcon Guides).

Homework isn’t just for School

The AIARE Level 1 course is very intent that you do your own research and that you not follow others blindly. YOU should understand how the oncoming weather will impact stability; what’s going on with the snowpack you’re visiting; and what dangers are presented by the angle, aspect, or elevations of the slopes you’re visiting.  Each of us should be studying the day’s weather report, studying the day’s avalanche report, considering different route options in different parts of our region, and checking the angle of different routes against maps showing slope angle (here’s a great tool for that). We need to think for ourselves about how the conditions of the day might impact the objectives the group has discussed. And we should each have some alternate plans in our pocket.  

7. Conquering other Halos and Hooks

There are many reasons why skiers find themselves in dangerous avalanche situations. Some people find themselves overly familiar with a place and underestimate the danger of their backyard. Others feel a commitment hook -- if they have taken the time to get to a place and told everyone they are going to ski a certain slope, they feel obligated to do it. Some of us have the cheap halo and don’t want to spend money on a beacon or an avalanche course.

As a student without much money, I certainly had the cheap halo, but taking this course was an awfully good idea. Now I’m better informed about the hazards of backcountry skiing and I have better tools for researching and analyzing these hazards on my own. Most importantly, as a young woman, this course has given me more confidence to stand up for my gut-level feelings and keep the lanes of communication open with others in my group. While I haven’t had time to test this yet, I believe I’ll be more comfortable with the position that discussing, analyzing, and questioning my group’s objectives is not synonymous with being the group’s kill-joy.



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Photo: The rainbow warriors getting field beta about snowpack and terrain issues contributing toward safe backcountry travel.