For two months, I have traveled over 300 hours in the Colorado winter backcountry with one mission: to learn how we can all travel safer in avalanche territory.
Statistically speaking, I should have already had some idea. Winter backcountry guides love to joke that women make smarter, less “ego-driven” decisions regarding avalanches and snow travel, and as a result, there are far fewer women casualties.
I put their theory to the test, stomping many miles with 23-year-old male adrenaline junkies through Rocky Mountain blizzards, shadowing avalanche courses, and touring backcountry gear manufacturers, all the while analyzing how we can safely enjoy the wild frontier of backcountry winter travel. The truth is, many adrenaline junkies are just as cautious as the textbooks preach, even the experts make mistakes, and regardless of experience, gender, and age, in the backcountry everyone is subject to a quick weather change, a travel plan that has to be rerouted, or a stint in avalanche-prone territory.
So how do we do it safer? My quest yielded three answers: education, gear, and community. Here is my guide to finding the training and gear and community that you definitely want to have and know how to use before bounding into the backcountry.
How to Select Your Avalanche Safety Course
The industry leader in avalanche education is AIARE (The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education), but there are a number of comparable options such as courses offered by NSP (National Ski Patrol), which comply with the American Avalanche Association. All AIARE courses follow a standard avalanche curriculum teaching safe travel and terrain assessment, decision-making, and gear use. The AIARE seal guarantees that the course will be 24 hours in the classroom and field, and that courses will be capped at a 6-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.
Once you settle on your course, there are a series of other considerations: when should you take it? Where? With whom, and at what cost? Avalanche courses range anywhere from $200 to $600 starting as early as November and continuing until the beginning of April. They’re offered in more than 12 U.S. states and six countries at backcountry guiding establishments, colleges, ski huts, and clubs. So how do you make your choice?
I enrolled in the Colorado Wilderness Guides and Rides/Colorado Mountain Club AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course based out of a metro area (Boulder, Colorado) and Aspen Expeditions AIARE Level 1 based out of a backcountry setting (Aspen, Colorado). I also called countless other programs across the U.S. to settle on the following rubric for selecting a course.
You want a course with access to great terrain. Colorado is one of the prime places to learn about avalanche awareness because of its variable snowpack and because it is the number one place for avalanches in America. But if you will mostly be touring in the Northeast, you should enroll where you’re likely to go in the snow. There are metro area courses that couple city-based classroom experiences with field days in a national park, and there are mountain-based courses, such as Aspen Expeditions, that feature still feature classroom evenings but use their field days in high mountain backcountry terrain, which is directly accessed off of Ajax at the Aspen Ski Resort. For metro-based courses, it can take time, energy, and resources to get high enough and steep enough into the backcountry to find teachable snowpack. With more of a high-mountain based guiding company, like Aspen Expeditions, more varied snowpack—i.e. snow you would actually want to ski—is more reliable, and either a trek to a hut or a lift ride away.
You want a course with access to a community. The Front Range and metro area courses are bigger, maintaining a 6-to-1 student teacher ratio, but sometimes having as many as 18 students and 3 teachers. I personally enjoyed this dynamic and viewed the diversity of people and teachers in the Colorado Wilderness Guides and Rides course as a major asset. With 18 local students gaining the same experience, by the time the course had finished, I had 18 new travel buddies. One of the top lessons that you learn in an avalanche course is that the trick to traveling in avalanche terrain is having the right people to travel with you. After the Colorado Wilderness Guides and Rides course, the students organized local hut trips together, and one of the teachers joined, just for fun. The fact that we were all locals connected to a tightknit organization helped us build a strong backcountry sub-community of people at our level.
Take your course now. I timed my courses for late in the fall and mid-winter. In each course, the snow pack was different, the weather conditions were different, the terrain was different, but per the AIARE standards, the course material was the same. Taking a course earlier means more practice. That said, the later in the season, the increased likelihood of interesting snow pack, access to more terrain, and often more slides. Ultimately, the environment is our best teacher when trying to understand backcountry travel, and learning when it has the most to teach us certainly has its benefits.
How to Select Your Avalanche Gear
There are many ways to practice using your gear on your own (sometimes I like to attach a beacon to my cat and throw her into a pile of pillows). But what you don’t realize until you unpack that cumbersome probe from your bag while swimming through three feet of fresh powder in subzero temperatures as a blizzard swirls around you is that using avalanche gear isn’t exactly easy. Especially when you have just learned that uncovering an avalanche victim’s body within 15 minutes, without physical trauma, places the likelihood of their survival at 92 percent. After 15 minutes, survival rates plummet and the risk of suffocation becomes imminent.
Luckily, there is avalanche equipment for every kind of user, and manufacturers know well that this is gear that has to be easy to use. The standard avalanche gear package includes a beacon, a probe, a shovel, and a pack. Probes and shovels do not vary greatly. Probes feel like awkward tent poles and some come with beacon-linked tech features that shave a few seconds off of a search. Shovels are like porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If they are too small, they’re pointless; and if they’re too big, you will leave them home. The have to be just right, and that depends on the person and the pack. Here are the products that I tested.
An avalanche beacon or transceiver operates at 457 kHz and specializes in identifying the location of a buried person/people.
BCA (Backcountry Access) Tracker2 – This is the beginner beacon. It is also the expert beacon. It is simple, and passes my “you can use it without taking your gloves off” test. It has a triple receive antenna (which means they have antennas positioned at three axis instead of just two and locate signals faster), which brings it up speed with the latest beacon technology. I interviewed longstanding members of the Aspen mountain rescue program, and it is the beacon of their choice, because as they soberly reminded me, “when someone’s buried, you don’t want the fanciest equipment, you want the fastest.”
Black Diamond Pieps DSP Sport – The Pieps has the feel of a high-end beacon, because it has more exacting arrows and it clearly delineates multiple burials. It also has the three-antenna system and runs as one of the most affordable beacons on the market. It’s locking system however, while an asset for maintaining battery life, is a struggle for changing modes with gloves on. Don’t even try wearing mittens.
For years, I wondered why anyone would buy a special pack for the backcountry. My mind completely changed the day I had to put all of my backcountry gear in a backpack, and then time how long it took me to take out and assemble the gear. Even without including specialized avalanche safety features, backcountry packs are designed to have unique compartments for avalanche gear, for helmets, and for everything else you need to travel, while staying light and versatile. If you are serious about going into the winter backcountry, a specially designed pack is vital.
After you decide to purchase a pack, there are safety features, like an Airbag or an AvaLung (or Black Diamond’s newest offering, the fan-powered jet pack). A pack with an airbag helps an avalanche victim float to the top of snow and debris in an avalanche. Some statistics and consumers question its effectiveness, complaining that the pack uses air canisters that have to be replaced or refilled, can’t travel on an airplane, and are expensive to maintain. But overall, research finds them effective, and for me personally, riding the surface of an avalanche versus being buried under several feet of snow would be my preference any day. The AvaLung is a small scuba-like tube that helps a person breathe longer than the allotted 15 minute survival projection when buried in snow. The downside is that it has to be in a person’s mouth before they are buried, so you would essentially have to ski with a tube in your mouth, or remember to insert it as the avalanche is happening. The newest fan pack solves all of these problems – no canisters or scuba tube – but comes with a steep price tag. The packs that I used were:
BCA Stach 30 – This is a basic pack holding 30L, but has the right amount of room to fit a sleeping bag, layers, gear and food for a short overnight hut trip. I also pull the side straps to make a tighter bag for an aggressive day on the mountain. Separate pockets for avalanche gear, coupled with back panel access made this pack versatile and accessible when diving into my pack to retrieve gear.
Black Diamond Revelation AvaLung Pack – In terms of material quality, this pack has its competitors beat. It is beyond durable, with all of the right pockets for helmets, crampons, avalanche gear and car keys. The back support system also makes it comfortable to wear all day regardless of weight. At 35 L, it’s a bigger pack, but because of the shape of the exterior avalanche gear pocket, it doesn’t feel this way, and takes some getting used to for packing and organizing gear.
The Unsung Heroes: What You Never Want to Leave Home Without
“Those Orange Straps”
“Those Orange Straps” are the duct-tape of the cold, wet, and snowy backcountry world. A simple stretchy rubber strap, it seems like nothing, until it becomes everything. I’ve used this strap to hold on my skins when they no longer stick to the bottom of my skis, to make a sled, to clean snow from small holes, and to make a broken ski binding useable once more.
A slope meter or inclinometer, is a protractor for cool kids and may be the most important piece of gear you own. Perhaps the number one rule for staying safe in avalanche territory is making good decisions, and evaluating slope angle is a great place to start. Staying below 25+ degree slopes and away from the runoff zone of an avalanche is one of the easier ways to stay safe in the backcountry.
How to Find Your Community
Although the rate of avalanche deaths is increasing almost every year, as is the number of avalanche triggers (i.e., humans entering the backcountry), avalanche awareness and community resources are becoming more accessible every day. I found safe travel partners through attending avalanche courses, workshops, seminars, and connecting to non-profits and information centers such as Friends of Berthoud Pass and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Avalanches conditions set in well before an avalanche actually happens. They start with irregular snowfall and temperature changes; they start on terrain where avalanches have run before; and they start with bad decisions, and traveling without the right gear or education or friends. With avalanches, it is rarely a question of “if,” and frequently a question of “when.” So with some of the best snow in decades ahead of many of us in 2014, get educated, get the right gear, and get the friends that will keep you returning to the backcountry safely year after year.