observations on gear, adventure, and the world

Christmas Eve Reading: Snow Fall

snow-fallThe New York Times has put together an amazing, thoughtful, and educational interactive piece about the avalanche at Tunnel Creek in the Stevens Pass, WA side country. Anyone who skis should read the story, especially if you’re interested in getting out into the backcountry.

That day, like today in the Salt Lake portion of the Wasatch, was rated as a “considerable” avalanche danger – a 3 out of 5 if you like. A day for knowing where you are going and what you are doing. A day for staying home too, or for staying in bounds.

We always roll the dice when we get out, or stay in. But there are days and places when things get really dangerous, situations where once you’re in them you can do everything perfectly and still die.

This morning, sitting reading this story I was struck that Geo Dave and I were sitting looking at a backcountry ski map talking about tours we could do and why tomorrow wasn’t a day we wanted to roll the dice with. The people in this group looked at the same forecast and decided to roll the dice. Reading the account of how they made their decisions, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have gone along were I in that group.

The most important thing about this story is the wake-up call it is for “side-country” skiers. When you’re outside the ropes it’s serious. You can do it safely, but you have to know for yourself that it is. It’s not hard to get the information and equipment that you need:

(1) Beacon, probe, shovel – practice with them, check the batteries before you leave the house, check signals before you start skinning.
(2) Take a basic snow safety course, like the Utah Avalanche Center’s Backcountry 101.
(3) Check the Avalanche reports and weather often throughout the season. AND before you go.
(4) Keep learning: take more courses, read a book or two, and learn the terrain.
(5) Find partners who you understand. Know how your partners make decisions and learn to bring something to the process.

Every step of every tour is your choice. Make sure you are comfortable with those choices, and that you are making them on your own with full understanding and information. Have a clear understanding of where you are going and what you are doing – if someone is going to show you around, do your own research on the conditions and the terrain. If what you find doesn’t fit with what they are saying – don’t go, or go home.

I’m convinced by this incident and my limited experience that the most important decisions in backcountry skiing are not made in the backcountry, but the night before and the morning of. Decisions about where to ski, decisions about whether or not to ski.

Today I went for a trail run. Tomorrow, I’ll be skiing in bounds at a resort that isn’t trying to destroy the Wasatch Backcountry, but I’ll be checking the avalanche advisories.

Stay on top.


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