(photo borrowed from avtraining.org)
I’m not anyone’s mother, but stories like this make me feel like being everyone’s mother.
I wouldn’t call myself an experienced backcountry skier. But the days I ski every year are backcountry days, and when I ski, my No. 1 goal is not dying. No. 2 is fun, and No. 3 is skiing fun terrain.
In Colorado, we have snowpack that is very difficult to forecast/understand/read, and we usually lead the U.S. in annual avalanche deaths. In the Front Range, we also have ski resort, sidecountry and backcountry terrain within a short drive from a population center of 4 million people and the nation’s 5th-busiest airport.
We have two backcountry areas, Berthoud Pass and Loveland Pass, that make it far too easy for anyone with a pair of skis or a snowboard to jump out of their car and onto fresh snow. I feel like every year, I read several stories about someone like this: a guy who went out into the backcountry with no equipment or knowledge of what could happen to him.
The thing missing from all these stories we read is Mountain Lesson No. 1: Mountains can kill you.
Ski resorts are in the mountains, but ski resorts are a controlled environment, with avalanche mitigation that occurs when you’re not there. Outside the boundaries of the resort, no one is watching out for you except you. The term “sidecountry” has become very popular in the past few years, to describe terrain accessed by a resort’s ski lift, but outside resort boundaries — you duck a gate to get to it, as easily as sneaking into a movie theater. Except it’s not a movie theater.
“Sidecountry” is not this secret box of candy bars your mother has been hiding from you. You do not duck a gate, enter into a magical world of first tracks and leave all the suckers back at the resort. Sidecountry and backcountry are a secret box of candy bars, and some of the candy bars in the box can kill you.
The six things you need to avoid dying in an avalanche:
1. Knowledge: Take an AIARE Level I avalanche class, at minimum. Level I certification has been described to me as “just enough knowledge to get you killed,” but I think it’s a good basic study in avalanche safety — just enough knowledge to realize what can kill you out there. If you can’t afford the class, find a way to get reliable equivalent information.
2. Partner: Someone who will obtain the Knowledge with you, and a buddy you can trust to keep it together enough to dig you out, should you get buried in a slide.
3. Avalanche Beacon: This is the magic beeper thing that will help you figure out where your Partner with the Knowledge is buried in a slide. You need one, and your Partner needs the other one. They both need to work, have full batteries, and you need to know how to use it (this is covered during the Knowledge).
4. Probe: This is for poking in the snow to find your Partner, who will be more than happy to be jabbed in the face with a Probe when he/she has been buried and choking on snow for longer than 5 seconds.
5. Shovel: This is for digging your Partner out, once you have used the Knowledge, the Avalanche Beacon and the Probe to find them.
6. Judgement: Once you have the Knowledge, you will need to use this to avoid avalanches. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best skier on the planet, and your partner is the best beacon-searcher on the planet, and could out-dig Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel — you can still die in an avalanche. Judgment is also an attribute to look for in a Partner. You don’t want someone who is going to look at all the warning signs, get excited about some sick line and decide to go for it anyway.
If that doesn’t seem simple, necessary, and worth a few hundred bucks, maybe you can watch this video and imagine nobody digs the guy out at the end.