Backcountry riding has its many upsides but not without its downsides. Here are some Avalanche tips from experienced backcountry tour guide Mike Wigley.
Pre Trip Details:
- Check the current weather and avalanche bulletin if there is one for your local area. Discussing conditions with local patrollers, guides, and educated backcountry users for more details within the snowpack.
- Have a plan of where you plan to go and a time to be back for someone back at home.
- Check the batteries of your transceiver and replace once the batteries are lower then 50%.
- Know the numbers for the local ski patrol and search and rescue in case of an emergency. Carry a device to contact them with, phone, satellite messenger, or satellite phone.
- Have a mental/ written list of all the gear you need for the day and have it packed ahead of time.
At the Parking Lot Details:
- Ensure everyone has what they need for the day and some extra food and clothing in case of emergency.
- Have everyone stand in a circle and turn their beacons on, with each person reading their battery percent out.
- Leave the key for your vehicle in a safe position in case of an emergency.
- Have a look of the surrounding mountains and see if you can see any visual clues of recent avalanche activity.
Approaching the Day:
- Start your day off with a transceiver check. Having one person ahead of the group and checking each member one at a time ensuring each beacon is responding. Having the last person making sure the checker has turned back to send.
- Have a back up plan in case the avalanche conditions don’t correspond to your original objective.
- Read the terrain as your skinning up and put your skin track in the safest terrain possible. Watch for visible clues of old avalanches (stripped or broken trees, frequent avalanche paths, etc.)
- Make mental notes of the snowpack as you tour up. Check the snowpack with various simple tests; hand shears, pole density, and shovel compression. Do test’s in correlation of aspects you want to ride.
- Make mental notes of the weather as well throughout the day; temperature changes, cloud cover, precipitation, wind speed, and wind direction.
- You are a snow detective out there and you have to compile a lot of information to make safe decisions with your objective. Take all the information you find out there as a grain of salt. There are a lot of factors that can change results from one side of the slope to the other.
Using the Shovel Shear test to check the snowpack and possibility of an avalanche.
Riding in Avalanche Terrain:
- Have someone from the group in a safe position that can clearly see the whole or most of the run.
- Analyze the slope for safety islands; higher ground, group of trees, rocks or spine features. These can be used if you have to pull out of your line to let your slough (loose snow) or avalanche go.
- First person entering the slope should ski cut the intended line to see if the slope will avalanche. Ski cutting takes time to learn, practice in safe areas till you feel comfortable in bigger terrain. When entering you want to cut across the slope at a 45 degree angle to your safely island. If nothing slid and you feel safe with the snow, slay on!
- When riding lines, discuss how you’re going to ride it. Who’s going when, their intentions of what their riding, grouping points, and partnering up if riding in trees.
Dealing with slab releases within your line. Pull over and try to get out of harms way.
What to do if Caught in an Avalanche:
- Try to get out of harms way. Using the same technique as the ski cut, with riding at an angle to an island of safety.
- Pull cord for your avalanche airbag if wearing one.
- Fight to stay on top of the snow by doing backstrokes and trying to swim a float.
- If you’re in tumble, protect your head by shielding it with your arms.
- Once the snow settles try and create an air pocket in front of your face with your arms.
- If you feel like you’re close to the surface try to poke an arm out.
- If your buried, this is when you act as calm as possible, which is a daunting task.
Searching with an Avalanche Beacon
What to do if Partner is caught in Avalanche (Practice your beacon skills!!):
- Once you notice your partner has caused an avalanche, yell “Avalanche!”
- One member jump up to the plate as a leader and assign tasks.
- Have someone call for help using SOS (satellite) messenger or cellphone.
- Have everyone switch their beacons to search and the leader should check that everyone has gone to search.
- Have members begin searching avalanche path. If you have multiple members searching have some assembling their probes and shovels.
- Read out your beacon numbers, as you get closer so others know who has the strongest signal.
- Go into fine search once you begin to read low numbers.
- Using the bracket method to find the lowest signal and then begin probing.
- After probe strike, leave probe in, and go down slope about 1.5x the depth of the probe markings.
- Using the V-shaped shovelling conveyor belt system to extract the snow as fast as possible. Rotating members clockwise approximately every 30 seconds, to have fresh arms at the front.
- Once you find the buried partner, clear the snow off their face and chest.
- Clear the rest of the snow, assess ABC’s, and perform any first aid that is needed.
- More than likely help will still be needed in case of trauma, hypothermia, or loss gear. Notify rescue when you have found buried partner and know of any injuries.
V Shaped Conveyor Shovelling Method
My biggest piece of advice is to of course take an avalanche course and practice!! Know your beacon, probe and shovel, and various techniques to use them. Practice with your main group members and learn to work with one another.
Happy and safe shredding!
*Disclosure: This information does not outweigh a sanctioned avalanche course by any means and we HIGHLY recommend you take these avalanche courses before heading out without a guide in unknown terrain.