Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mid-Winter Update: Don't Be Stupid Edition

 Happy 2013 to all you powder hounds and fish freaks in the Missoula area, and our readers beyond.  While my blogging brothers are still smacking the trout between the ice floes, I've got the snow fever.  We've had an up-and-down ski season thus far here in the Northwest, with times of absolute feast followed by times of absolute famine.  We are currently coming out of a snowless week, and yesterday brought a few fresh inches to the high country.  We still need more and the forecast looks reasonably good for the near future.

Backcountry conditions have been fairly stable so far this season, but after the last storm cycle, a few friends found themselves helpless participants in nature's scariest winter ride.  Luckily no one was killed or seriously injured.  The latest round of high pressure locked up many of the weak layers in the snowpack, but it also left some surface hoar behind, which just got buried yesterday.  We'll have to see how the sun crust and hoar reacts to another round of loading.

For the record, I still consider myself a complete novice in the backcountry, but I feel I need to say something about recent events out of bounds.  Once again this year there have been a lot of careless people leaving the ski areas, some neglecting even the most basic safety practices.  I'm the furthest thing from an expert, but I consider myself a serious student of doing it "the right way".  It's hard to tell other beginners what to do when you consider yourself a beginner, but I'm going to do it anyway.  Take a basic avalanche class or read a decent backcountry ski book and you will find the same common sense suggestions that follow below.

Always check snow stability before riding in steep terrain.
First of all, if you ride in avalanche terrain without a beacon, shovel, and probe and you don't check the snow stability before dropping in, you are making big mistakes that will eventually catch up to you.

If you are dropping into a steep backcountry bowl, with uncontrolled snow conditions, where the only way out is to climb, you better be prepared for the worst.  The worst could include being caught in an avalanche or having to rescue one of your friends who is buried.  That's really tough to do without avy gear, especially in less than 10 minutes.  With every second that passes after a person is buried, their chances of survival plummet.  I was fortunate enough to witness a skier-triggered slab avalanche on my first real trip into the backcountry, so I'm probably too paranoid, if there is such a thing.  There is no good reason to leave the ski area without this equipment.  I confess, I do ride a few sidecountry areas without a beacon, but they have a low risk of avalanche, are very close to a ski area and I can get back to the lift, even without my skis.   

Second, avalanches aren't the only thing you have to worry about when you leave the ski area.  Without skis or snowshoes, it is very tough to walk in waist deep snow for very far, especially if you need to climb up a 35 degree slope for 1,000 feet.  If your equipment breaks or malfunctions, or you twist your knee, you could end up in big trouble.  It's smart to not travel alone, or in a group larger than 5.  Large groups impede your decision making ability and are tough to keep on the same page.  Last Monday, a solo skier in the Snowbowl backcountry called 911 because he could not make it back to the area due to a skin malfunction.  That ain't cheap and it risks the lives of your rescuers.  If you have a buddy and some duct tape, you might be able to solve your own problem.  Of course, this person also did not have a beacon, shovel, or probe either, but that's besides the point.

Third, be prepared.  Be in at least reasonably good physical condition.  Make sure you have food and water, at least for the day.  I usually don't eat much while I'm skinnng and skiing, but I know if I get stuck somewhere, I will still have a dinner of sorts.  Carry a Leatherman or similar multitool and some duct tape in case you need to make a repair.  If you can find spare parts and screws, bring 'em along.  I also pack a headlamp, extra dry layers, socks, gloves, hats, and batteries, a lighter and/or matches, a safety whistle, and a multiday first aid kit.  That's probably a bare minimum.  Please feel free to add things I may have forgotten in the comments.

Finally, always remember that if you put yourself at increased risk, you put many people other than yourself at increased risk of injury or death.  It's not just about you and the sick line that you are about to ski.  The decisions you make affect the skiers in your party, the skiers in other parties, and those who may have to rescue you or others you may put in danger.

Unfortunately, I know I'm mostly preaching to choir here and those who really should read this won't.  I think I speak for most of my friends on these things, and definitely for our contributors.  I'm sure this will probably be an annual article about the same problems.  The best thing we can do is keep talking about it and try to reach more people.  With the increased traffic beyond the ropes, we all have a stake in keeping ourselves and others informed.

Rant over.  Enjoy the fluff!

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