Winter is officially here but it’s still early and while many of us have been waiting nine months to shred snow in our favorite backcountry locales, it pays to be patient. The reminders are there: four years ago professional skier Jamie Pierre was killed in an early season avalanche while hiking at Snowbird. Three weeks ago a skier was partially buried near Breckenridge, Colo. and this weekend, a skier was caught in an avalanche after ducking a rope at Stevens Pass Resort east of Seattle. So save yourself a base shot on the split board and make a wise choice that might also save your life: quit frothing and use your noggin. Here are four quick hints from Kenny Kramer, director of the Northwest Avalanche Center in Washington’s Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Be on guard. You can have unique situations with the snowpack in the early season. It can turn midwinter in a very short time. In Washington, we sat under a ridge of high pressure for a long time, which created a frozen, hard crust and surface hoar (which is like ball bearings or marbles when new, heavy snow lands on it creating high risk). Then we get three-plus feet of high-density snow and it’s a full-winter avalanche situation in a matter of a day. In the early season, you might be starting out at low elevation, with a relatively shallow snowpack and think, ‘no big deal,’ then you climb and what you perceived as low avalanche danger turns into full mid-winter starting zones up high. Plus trauma is even more of a risk when a seemingly low snowpack lets go and drags you across exposed rocks and trees.
Don’t froth. It’s a long season. You’ve been chomping at the bit, but maybe start out with less ambitious goals. On your first few outings, maybe make your primary objectives to do beacon practice and check equipment (probes, shovels, beacon at the very least). Stay on relatively safe, shallow terrain. Have that discipline to take it easy the first few times out. Again, people aren’t in as good of shape, they might be on new equipment and obviously aren’t as practiced up with their avalanche equipment and probing. Plan those first trips with your partner, make it an enjoyable, mellow day rather than going out bent on hitting the open, exposed slopes.
Gain in-season experience. Anxiousness, a desire to get out, a lack of exercise, all those things are human factors that need to be considered. Nobody has had any practice when it suddenly becomes winter. People aren’t as quick to make good observations as they would when they’ve been out throughout the season, gaining experience and knowledge of the snowpack. After you’ve gained experience through a season, watching the snowpack, knowing when there’s a rain layer underneath, etc., you’re more keyed in on subtle differences. Right now, there’s no history and it’s all changing dynamically, right in front of us. Gain knowledge so you can better formulate your decisions in the backcountry.
Avoid the backcountry during big storm cycles. This rule generally applies to anywhere you live in the world. Stormy periods, when we receive a lot of snow, are the periods most directly related to avalanches. In the northwest, and it’s kind of true everywhere, but particularly true here, in a few days it’ll dump three or four feet or more. So obviously, slopes are going to be loaded. Snow needs time to settle, and of course even then there’s still danger, but recognizing the fact that you need to avoid these unsettled periods is extremely important.
Kramer recommends that backcountry users utilize their local avalanche forecasters and continually education themselves with avalanche courses. Go to Avalanche.org to find a course near you.