by James Robb, Evergreen Backcountry Guides General Manager
“3. 2. 1. Dropping!” came over the radio as the camera reels rolled into action, the heli hovered above and the perfect line opened up below him. Four or five massive turns, some sluff management and then a high speed straight-line out to the bottom. Smiles and cheers all around. All in a days work for big mountain freerider right. Yeah they make it look so easy, and it makes us all want to shred it like them.
The allure of the the most epic lines and the freedom of fresh powder fields calls to pretty much anyone who has spent any time on a snowboard or skis. Blazing your own trail and making your turns off a face is what off-piste skiing is all about. Accessing the backcountry terrain has also seen a real gain in popularity with split-boards, great touring skis and many companies flaunting other backcountry specific gear.
However, having the ambition and ability to get into the backcountry does not always equate to the best choice for your longevity on this planet. We as skiers and snowboarders are most of the time looking for steep terrain with great powder snow that we know will challenge us, get the adrenaline pumping and create that one of a kind exhilaration . Unfortunately, the type of snow and terrain that is great for ‘riding’ is also prime for ‘sliding’. Yes, prime avalanche terrain. In most cases, it is the skier or rider that triggers the slide that takes them or others in their party out and the avalanche doesn’t care if you are an expert or not.
The following questions and recommendations are a brief run down of what off-piste enthusiasts should be aware of prior to heading out.
- Do you have proper training and experience to go outside of controlled resort areas?
- Do you know your route?
- Have a map & compass?
- Have an alternate route plan?
- Have you checked the weather for today, as well as the weather over the past week?
- Have you checked recent avalanche bulletins and reports?
- Do you understand them?
- Does your group have an experienced “leader” who can make informed decisions to ensure your group’s safety in and out of the backcountry?
- Do you have the appropriate gear for self-rescue?
- Have you informed someone of your planned route, back-up route and return time?
- Do you know emergency contact numbers in case of an accident?
- Do you have insurance? Backcountry rescues are expensive!
- Do all members of your party have appropriate winter clothing?
- Do all members of your party have the essential avalanche transceiver (beacon), probe and shovel?
- More importantly does everyone know how to use them in a rescue situation?
- Do you have a first-aid kit?
- Rescue gear?
- Cell phone?
- Emergency overnight gear?
- Do you have enough food and water?
- Do you have a method of ascending, Ie. Ski touring bindings & skins/snowshoes/split- board?
- During Trip If you are departing via a ski resort, did you fill out a trip route card? Ski areas that you can access the backcountry from will provide these at the base of the mountain or at the gate in to the backcountry at Hakuba Ski resorts.
- What is the weather doing now?
- Will this affect the stability of your intended route?
- Is everyone in your group comfortable with the terrain your route takes you into?
- Are you making safe and informed route decisions for your party?
- Are there other parties in the area?
- Will your route affect them?
- Will their route affect you?
- Who is above you/below you?
- Are there signs of recent avalanche activity?
- Shooting cracks?
- Are you constantly reassessing the snow stability and your group’s ability?
If you are unsure about the snow stability, stay to simple terrain away from avalanche start zones and run out zones and do not exceed your experience or ability! If you are unsure about the terrain it’s best to hire a guide to take you safely out and back from the backcountry and enrolling in an Avalanche Safety Course is also a first step in acquiring knowledge that will invariably help you survive. Play safe out there !
James Robb is a professional guide and General Manager at the Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba, Nagano and has resided in Nagano for over 10 years. He has attained his CAA Level 1, CSGA Level 1, CSIA Level 2, CASI Level 2 Advanced Wilderness Explorer First Aid & CPR as well as multiple other guiding certificates.