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“Confidence comes with years of being in the mountains and noticing subtle changes,” says Nick Russell. “So you’re looking at the ways that the icicles are dripping off of the trees or the wind is blowing off of the roof of your house.” Photo: Ming Poon


The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Learn to make smart, safe decisions on your quest for untracked powder in the Essential Guide to Backcountry Basics and Avalanche Awareness with splitboard aficionado Nick Russell and avalanche instructor Sam Thackeray supported by White Claw. The Inertia readers save 10% with code INERTIA10.


When headed out into the backcountry, expert splitboarder Nick Russell’s preparation begins days before a trip. This is emphasized heavily in his new class with Inspire Courses, Nick Russell’s Guide to Backcountry Basics.

Checking the weather, avalanche, and snow reports days in advance allows him to keep tabs on what the conditions will look like and determine the safest way to ride.

“Is it too dangerous to be going out there? Have we been getting a lot of snow? Have we been getting a lot of wind? Maybe some rain up high to a certain level. Do we have a persistent, weak layer in the snowpack? These are all things to consider before you go out,” Nick says in his course.

While online reports are useful, they shouldn’t be something you put 100 percent of your faith in. Reports are fallible, and Nick emphasizes being out there yourself to assess your sense of comfort with the situation.

“That confidence comes with years of being in the mountains and noticing subtle changes,” he says. “So you’re looking at the ways that the icicles are dripping off of the trees or the wind is blowing off of the roof of your house.”

Here are some of those subtle changes and red flags that Nick uses to decide whether he’ll switch to plan B or C for the day.

1. Has there been increased snow load or heavy snowfall in the past 24 hours?
If there has been snow, the avalanche danger is going to be pretty high, so you need to tread lightly.

2. Have there been high winds the past 24 hours?
The winds coming from the east can load slopes facing west. The winds coming from the north load slopes facing south. So that is something to always be vigilant of, keeping an eye on which way the wind is coming and how hard it’s blowing because they can deposit that new snow, creating wind slabs and wind drifts that can be easy to trigger.

3. Is the sun coming out after a two-day storm?
The warmth from that sun can create increased weight on the snow load, therefore making it unstable.

4. When walking around, are you noticing any cracking within the snow?
“Whumping,” or collapsing, means that’s that new snow is settling on a weak layer. And that is a major red flag.

“If I’m seeing cracking or feeling a little *whump,* or collapse, I’m out of there.”

5. Have there been recent avalanches?
You’re looking around. If you’re seeing a lot of natural avalanches out there, that’s a sign that it might be a good idea to head home, maybe go to the resort that day.

“If you’re noticing some red flags, back down off the line. Celebrate backing down,” Nick adds. “If you were dead set on riding something and the stars aren’t aligning for it to happen that day, have different options because that only means you’re going to have more fun out in the mountains.”

Editor’s Note: Learn to make smart, safe decisions on your quest for untracked powder in the Essential Guide to Backcountry Basics and Avalanche Awareness with splitboard aficionado Nick Russell and avalanche instructor Sam Thackeray supported by White Claw. The Inertia readers save 10% with code INERTIA10.

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