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The Inertia

“Heading out into the backcountry, my day probably begins the day before, maybe even several days before actually going outside,” says professional splitboarder and outdoorsman Nick Russell. “I’m looking at the weather, seeing what it’s doing in the days leading up to the day that I’m actually planning on going out there. You’re trying to just basically keep tabs and keep a running list of what’s going on.”

Wind and snow conditions can change at the drop of a hat in the backcountry. Not only should you keep an eye on the weather, avalanche (Avalanche.org is a great tool), and snow reports, but Nick suggests, more than anything, that your intuition should guide the decision to head out.

“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.”

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Numbers and forecasts are only some of the predictors that Nick references when planning a trip. Years of experience have allowed him to notice subtle changes in conditions that could be trouble, and he trusts that confidence more than relying 100 percent on one person’s avalanche forecast.

Nick Russell Signs on With WNDR Alpine, a Brand That Uses Algae to Make Snowboards

Nick Russell, when the conditions come together. Photo: WNDR

“You can’t blindly go out there trusting somebody that the avalanche danger is low. You need to make that decision for yourself. And that confidence comes with years of being in the mountains and noticing subtle changes. 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. It’s all of these little things that kind of paint this brush stroke to build the bigger picture.”

Nick takes into account several questions before choosing on a plan A, B, C or even a no-go for a backcountry trip:

1. Has there been increased snow load or heavy snowfall in the past 24 hours? Did we just get a big new storm of two feet of snow?
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?
Keep 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.

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3. Is the sun coming out? Am I expecting the sun to come out after a two-day storm?
The warmth from that sun can create increased weight on the snow load and therefore make it unstable.

4. Once out, as I’m walking around, am I noticing any cracking within the snow?
Is there any “whumping” or collapsing, which means that’s that new snow settling on a weak layer? That is a major red flag. If I’m seeing cracking or feeling a little *whump* collapse I’m out of there.

5. And then finally, perhaps the most important indicator of unstable conditions is 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 do decide to go on a road trip chasing a storm, and if you’re going to a foreign mountain range that you don’t know anything about, something that is extremely useful to Nick is seeking out local knowledge. Finding that information from the people that are in those mountains every day is invaluable.

“When I go to a new place outside of the Sierras, I will call my friends that live there and ask them what’s going on with the snowpack,” he says. “The primary concern for me is asking, ‘Are there any persistent, buried, weak layers from earlier in the year?’ Is there something three feet under the snow that I don’t know about?’ Maybe they’re not talking about it in the avalanche forecast.”

If you don’t have any friends in the area that you’re going, hire a guide. There are plenty of guide services in all the major mountain ranges in North America, which would just make your experience a lot more streamlined. They’ll take you to where the snow is good, and they’ll take you out there safely.

If you’re noticing red flags, back down off the line. Celebrate backing down. The thing is always going to be there. It’s going to be there the next day. You can come back in better conditions and ride it the way you want to.

“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,” Nick says. “It’s going to increase your chances for success, which is coming home with a smile on your face.”

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Interested in safely riding untracked powder in the backcountry? There’s a lot to learn. Especially with safety as the top priority. In his introductory course, Nick Russell’s Guide to Backcountry Basics, big mountain snowboarder Nick Russell shares a lifetime of knowledge and information essential to begin your journey in the backcountry.

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