Special Projects Director
Guest post by Tom Diegel
This installment of “The Little Things” associated with safety involves the most difficult component of skiing in avalanche terrain: ourselves! One thing that my partners and I like to do is maintain good backcountry habits; we do this to avoid getting surprised and to be prepared for that rare incident that can change your day from fun to terror. Be sure to check out installments one and two. And look for number four in a few days!
Any pilot will tell you that following protocol is a good way to improve the odds of a safe journey, regardless of conditions. Here are some of the habits we try to follow.
Before anyone drops a run, we try to position one other person to see as much of the run as possible. Ideally, the first person down stops out of the potential runout zone and in a position to be able to spot the subsequent riders.
LAMAR - A term I adopted from canyoneering for “Last Man At Risk”
Keep in mind the vulnerability of the last skier. Recently we skied an avy path with a long, flattish runout, and the natural inclination was to ski far out away from the deposition zone. However, if the third guy “got it” and went for a ride there’s a possibility that he would be buried at the leading edge of the flats, and any potential recovery would begin with the two rescuers having to transition to uphill and walk back up the slope to initiate the search, costing precious time. Keep someone in position to be able to watch and perhaps rescue the last person, but as the last person to ski, acknowledge that you are the most vulnerable (and perhaps ski accordingly)
In acknowledgement of this vulnerability, Bruce Tremper taught me the concept of the first skier starting their transition to uphill mode as soon as she comes to a stop (if going back up is the plan). By the time the third or fourth skier is dropping, skier 1 is probably close to being ready to go back uphill.
If the slope is conducive to it (and many are not) we like to ski down part way, bail to a safe zone, wait for the next person to go by, etc. However, if it rips while you are spotting, can you get out of the way? I know a guy who stopped midway down a long run to spot his buddy, turned his skis to face the slope for better viewing, and when the slope shattered wasn’t able to turn around fast enough to dive into the woods, and ended up with a shattered femur.
If there’s no safe zone for stopping/leapfrogging then go all the way down, keeping in mind that as the slope mellows your pards up top will likely have a better view of you to confirm you made it down ok.
One at a time in avy terrain
This is a pretty standard practice, but with big groups and/or “safe” skiing it’s easy to fall out of the habit. It’s important protocol and it seems that we see a surprising number of folks skiing potentially risky slopes simultaneously.
It’s really easy to lose track of people in tree runs so as we ski in the woods we hoot/holler a fair bit to maintain contact (make sure you hoot back!), and we tend to use our distinct call so that multiple folks in a party can confirm who’s who without visual contact.
Communicate the ski plan
A couple of weeks ago we saw a couple of friends who had gone to either side of a rib. One stopped high and one low. We were able to help facilitate getting them back together, but it was clear that they hadn’t discussed what the plan was for the run. Without discussing the plan, it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of people.
Communicate the skinning plan
I was part of a full burial as a result of lack of communication about where to put the skin track in. My pards knew where they were going, but I – breaking trail - did not, and I inadvertently led us into the danger zone. And two friends have died in avvies triggered while skinning. Uphill travel usually involves less-exposed terrain, but that’s not always the case.Moving slowly and being dressed for exertion potentially makes an avalanche more consequential. So evaluate a slope that you are going to skin up, identify the objective hazards, and make a plan to safely navigate the climb.
I know that when I’m below a trail breaker who is zigzagging up a slope above me I get twitchy, so as a trail breaker I try to be conscientious of the people below; can I take a longer reach, take the skinner to spots where my pards might have some semblance of protection, wait at those spots myself so my pards can get to the next safer zone, take the skinner over a rib or into a copse of trees so I’m not weighting the slope right above my sitting-duck partners looking up at me with saucer-eyes?
Stop and check on your pards
In a recent well-advertised incident, skier 1 skied a shot and then zipped away for the mile+ back to the car, unaware that skier 2 triggered an avalanche and went for a short ride.. Skier 1 was a) not available if a rescue had been required and b) assumed buried by skiers 2 and 3, who called in organized rescue after a fruitless search. Don’t assume that your pards are always ok and go all the way down/out. We always stop a couple of times on long, narrow exit trails because it’s easy to break bodies or gear on the way home.
Weather and daylight considerations
An accident requiring first aid, repairs, or an evacuation that is not a big deal at noon on a sunny day in March could be life-threatening at 4:30 pm on a minus 5 deg December afternoon. Adjust your risk tolerance accordingly.
The chess board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just and patient. But we also know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance.
— Thomas Huxely