The first snows are falling across the country, and winter is on its way. With resort skiing and riding looking a lot different than last year (and hopefully a lot different than the years to come), earning your turns in the backcountry is looking far more worth the effort than ever before. For those of you just getting started (or for anyone needing a refresher), here are some great resources for staying safe out there.
An Avalanche 1 course, also referred to as an AIARE course, is essential to safely making turns in the backcountry. Classes are starting to fill up (if they haven’t already), but don’t let the fully booked class schedules deter you. Another option is to get friends together and book a private course. Only a little more expensive than a regular course, and probably more fun than spending two days with strangers (to find an avalanche course near you see Avalanche.org, below).
Avalanche.org is the Google of online backcountry resources. It lists avalanche courses by state and region, forecasting centers, accident reports from across the US, an encyclopedia of avalanche terms (for you nerds out there) and in general is a good page to have bookmarked.
Know Before You Go is a free online avalanche awareness program. While it is no substitute for an Avvy 1 course, it is a great place to start as well as an awesome pre-season refresher for someone who is already Avvy 1 certified (and includes some pretty sick videos to get you stoked to get out there). With five different modules, KBYG gives an in-depth look at gear, reading forecasts, understanding the dangers of backcountry terrain and how to keep yourself out of harm’s way.
Know your heuristics. Powder fever is real. Last season I got in a pretty nasty accident driving on freshly fallen snow because I wanted “first laps” and didn’t stop to put my chains on (All Wheel Drive and All Season Tires can handle anything, right? Not even close). Powder fever makes us do some stupid shit, so know the human factor. The definitive read on the subject is Ian McCammon’s Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents. Heuristics are basically rules of thumb that we adopt in everyday life to help us make decisions that, when in high-risk scenarios such as avvy territory, can do much more harm than good. In this paper, McCammon outlines six heuristic traps that people fall into when out in the backcountry: familiarity, consistency, acceptance, the expert halo, social facilitation, and scarcity (which is the one I fell victim to).
Backcountry SOS App. While I don’t have any experience using this app (and would like to keep it that way) it’s better to have too many resources than too little, especially when this resource doesn’t add any weight to your touring setup. Texts are much easier to get through spotty cell service than a phone call, and gps coordinates help potential rescuers a lot more than a panicked description of where you are. Another (more reliable but more expensive) option are dedicated SOS devices. These gps devices like the Garmin inReach or SPOT devices work off of satellites instead of cell towers to relay your position in case of an emergency. That being said the device alone costs upwards of $100 and often requires a subscription. Tell your mom you want one for Christmas and that it might save your life (at least that’s what I did).
In short, the resources are out there, and there’s no excuse not to get educated. Be smart, be safe, and get stoked for the most wonderful time of the year!