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Geartrade: Touring Etiquette

By Rob Reinfurt

The Winter of 2020-2021 will surely be an active one for backcountry travelers. There is still a fair amount of uncertainty on how ski resorts will operate this season and if they will even open. Combine that with general apprehension for sharing lifts with strangers, better touring gear, and overall enthusiasm for fresh tracks, and we have a recipe for backcountry traffic. 

Over the last 20 years in the Wasatch, a lot more people are skiing in the backcountry, especially these past 3-4 winters. It’s no surprise, skiing isn’t getting any cheaper, the word is getting out, and the allure of untracked powder is impossible to resist. 

Most people have heard the saying “know before you go” and “beacon, shovel, probe”, but often new backcountry travelers don’t have a complete understanding of what it means to travel safely in the mountains. Thanks to the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC), this information is now more available than ever. If you find yourself with questions and have not taken a basic avalanche course, that is your first step. The UAC is an incredible resource in Utah and compiles all of the classes in one place. They even offer a few free classes.

From there, you can continue your education by taking the Level 1 and Level 2 certifications. Or you can take the Level 2 course a few times, because this science is not black and white, and there is so much you can learn from being in the field.

Here are a few things you may not learn from your basic avalanche articles or even from your typical “unwritten rules”.

1. Master your craft. I know this is not what beginner and intermediate skiers want to hear, but it is so important. Backcountry skiing is inherently dangerous, so if you are not confident skiing variable terrain and conditions, then you may not be ready for your typical backcountry ski tour. Backcountry skiing is not groomed, and conditions almost always vary. You will find pockets of fresh snow, and one turn later, pockets of wind slab or variable snow conditions, making the conditions inconsistent and often highly variable. This can be challenging. If you find your self falling in these conditions, you are now a greater trigger for potential avalanches. If you’ve ever been in an avalanche, you know it’s best to start on your feet. Upside down snow, ice, sastrugi, hardpack – you name it, you’ll find it on a tour. If your ski ability is not proficient, you are simply putting you, your partners, and nearby skiers at risk.

Side note: If you are an intermediate skier, that does not mean you can’t tour. Find yourself a seasoned partner, and start exploring low angle, low consequence runs, preferably in the trees (where there are more anchors for the snowpack and thus less dangerous)

2. Dial in your route. Route finding is key. Learn about and understand the potential hazards of certain slopes, slope angles, slope directions, terrain traps, and other features that could put you in a bad situation. Always pick the safest route up, which is often the least steep and below the least amount of hazards. This is the best habit to get into. Remember to keep your distance from other parties and cross steeper slopes or sections one at a time. Talk about the approach with your partners during the journey and the reasoning behind the route choices. 

Route finding doesn’t end at the top. 

  • Before your descent, discuss the route and identify safe zones on the way down. 

  • Pick out a few places that are less steep and protected as stopping points or re-evaluation zones. 

  • Talk about where you plan on heading if the slope slides. 

  • Before dropping, make eye contact with your partner to ensure they are watching you. 

  • When you stop, return the favor and keep your eyes on them as they head down. Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce Tremper is a great resource on this topic.

  • Always ski slopes one at a time. 

  • Never ski above touring parties or directly above other skiers. 

  • Communicate.

3. Stay on top of the weather. This starts with the first snowfall. You may be months away from your first tour, but as soon as the snow starts flying, you’ll want to make note of it. Every weather event has an impact on the snowpack. 

Wind, rain, snow, changing temperatures – all of these things affect the avalanche conditions. 

 For instance, if the season starts with a ton of snow, and then it goes dry for a period of time causing moisture to leave the snowpack and essentially rot out the snow, this can cause a weak layer, called depth hoar. This potentially affects the snowpack for the entire season. As storms come and pass, and depending on all the weather in between, layers begin to form in the snowpack. Each layer presents a different set of opportunities from great skiing to huge avalanches and everything in between. The more you fully understand the weather throughout the winter, the better you'll understand the risk of skiing that particular day. Snow Sense is a great book that covers this. 

4. Find great ski partners and pick a leader. If you’re new to this, please do not go alone. It is important to hone this craft from experienced backcountry travelers. There is so much nuance to this activity, and conditions are never black and white. A great leader is experienced, CONSERVATIVE, and understands that the route is determined by the weakest link/skier in the group. The best skier is not always or often the best leader. The ideal leader can communicate under stress, so if and when your buddy is caught in a slide, they can react calmly and confidently assigning tasks to each member in the group. IE: When to start the search after clearing danger, when to turn your beacons to search mode, who will be performing the search, who will be preparing the probe when you get closer to the victim, digging appropriately (wide, while moving snow downhill), etc. 

5. Know when to say NO. After hiking up a mountain for hours with your ideal ski descent in mind, it can be hard to turn back for another descent. Let the mountains be your guide. Conditions change rapidly, and avalanche dangers can arise in a matter of minutes (with rapid warming and wind). On three occasions, I have strongly suggested the group choose another descent and, members of the group insisted on the planned descent, all of which resulted in avalanches. Two of these were major, one of them cracking trees like toothpicks sending a plume of snow a 1/2 mile high. Go with your gut, not with your ego.

Skiing powder in the backcountry is wonderful, but living to do it another day is even better. Stay safe.

Rob Reinfurt has been running Geartrade for the last 15 years and trying to ski as many days as possible.