So you’re fired up for ski season, you’ve dialed your basic backcountry skiing gear list, and you’re wondering what the next steps are. We heard a lot of great comments in the first article, and while you won’t get very far without a basic quiver of backcountry focused gear, the truth is if you don’t know how to use your gear, and you don’t know how to travel and ski safely in avalanche terrain, gear’s not going to be all that beneficial. Getting the right gear that works for you is a necessary initial step, but there are a few other steps that are even more essential than gear in order to practice backcountry skiing in a competent manner.
There are several trains of thought on this matter, and as I said in the first article, this is merely my subjective viewpoint. However, it’s pretty uniform that gaining awareness, knowledge, and education pertinent to snow science and avalanche dynamics is an essential aspect in this process. There’s several ways you can go about doing this, and while some may feel strongly about certain methods more than others, I feel strongly that any engagement is better than nothing, and diversity in your modes of learning will only make you better educated in the long-run.
Learning from certified avalanche teachers in a classroom setting is highly recommended. In my opinion, this is a mandatory action all backcountry enthusiasts must take. A basic introductory course, usually referred to as “AVI I” can come in many shapes and forms, but locally here in Tahoe you have two great options for taking AVI I that are both AIARE (The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) certified.
If you can throw down a few extra bucks sign up for a class at ASI (Alpine Skills International). Not only does ASI offer AVI I, but they offer specific classes on the craft of backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, and offer courses every year that will place you with professional guides in remarkable settings. ASI also offers a pre-AVI I course, several different versions of AVI I including a refresher, as well as AVI II and AVI III courses.
If you have a somewhat flexible schedule and are looking to keep your costs down look into courses offered at LTCC (Lake Tahoe Community College). They offer AIARE AVI I and II courses, Wilderness First Responder and EMT courses, as well as classes such as Intro to Backcountry Skiing and Wilderness Survival Skills. I personally know several of the instructors who teach these classes and they are literally as solid as you can get. Moreover, when all is said and done, you’ll get a similar experience going through LTCC as you will by going through any other certified outlet. It’s a great option for your outdoor education skill set.
What’s just as important as learning about the ins-and-outs of avalanche education is learning how to use your equipment properly. In these classes, at both ASI and LTCC, you’ll learn how to use your beacon correctly, search for a multiple-burial scenario, shovel a buried avalanche victim out properly, and learn when/why you should probe among other necessary skills.
After you’ve gotten your feet wet with AVI I or an equivalent, think about taking the next step and getting your AVI II certification. It’s pretty much like AVI I on steroids, and has a much greater concentration on the snow science aspect of avalanche education. There’s really no reason to not take it if you’re going to spend copious amounts of time skiing in the backcountry.
In addition, I highly recommend taking a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course or a Wilderness EMT course depending on your specific outdoor objectives. Not only will you learn first aid skills, but the fact of the matter is the more you go out in the field, the greater the chance that you, someone in your party, or someone skiing in the same zone as you will have an accident at some point. Becoming a WFR, where you’ll also have the opportunity to get CPR certified, is just one more step towards becoming a competent and resourceful backcountry skier.
Although I listed schooling before literature, if you’re coming into the practice of backcountry skiing cold, or even if you’ve been out in the field for years, reading a quality book centered on avalanche education will be incredibly useful to your pursuits. Personally, I have a few favorite books, which I’ll list here with links to amazon.com, although buying them from your local bookstore or gear shop is encouraged.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper (widely recognized as a Guru in avalanche education)
Depending on how much you wish to learn, and how deeply you wish to invest in the craft of backcountry skiing, and potentially ski mountaineering, the following two books are also highly recommended.
Freedom of the Hills (“The Bible” for anyone who loves mountains and wants to spend time traveling safely and competently in them)
Other Useful Media
Backcountry Magazine is a good resource for new trends in the field, new gear, and the overall current state of backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
The Internet is also an amazing resource for necessary avalanche education. You can find invaluable YouTube videos to assist you on your educational path, check out useful tips on websites like skiingthebackcoutry, and read detailed reports of avalanche fatalities and incidents from regional avalanche forecast centers so you can learn what went wrong in certain scenarios so that hopefully you won’t make a similar decision in the future. Of course you have to be careful about where you’re getting your information from, but certain websites and organizations, like our very own SAC (Sierra Avalanche Center) in the Tahoe area, should be bookmarked on your computer and the first thing you read every morning before heading out to ski tour right after you just read the latest weather report. When an avalanche occurs, or a visible observation of instability has been observed, it will be recorded by SAC. They collect all of this local data, and make it available to the public so you and I can be as informed, aware, and up-to-speed on the current state of the backcountry as possible. These guys are literally out there every single day making observations, watching the snowpack change, and ultimately making sense out of what is happening in the Sierra snowpack. They’re also a non-profit and can use any financial assistance possible if anyone has the means.
Go backcountry skiing! Hopefully you’ve read Snow Sense, taken a class (or two) at ASI or LTCC, have proper gear and know how to use it. But you’ll never really know unless you go. It’s a double edged sword I know, but it’s the same thing I teach my students regardless of the discipline the class is housed in-it’s one thing to learn based in theory and critically examine theory applied on the ground-it’s another thing to actually experience “it” for yourself. Applied to avalanche education you can read and be taught for years on end, but if you never actually see an old crown with your eyes, or dig a pit and find a weak layer buried several inches or feet beneath fresh snow, how are you going to really be able to assess current avalanche danger, travel in it, or safely ski amongst it on a daily basis? Of course you can always choose to ski the safest slope possible once you have some knowledge, or simply choose to not go out as realistically there is always a hazard present, but that’s not what a great majority of users choose or want to do.
That is why I’ll argue that all of the aforementioned is essential to a well-rounded avalanche skill set, but personal experience in the field is “the icing on the cake”. Ideally you’ll be able to link up with friends who have already been skiing in the backcountry for years, or at least team up with partners that have a greater skill set and more experience than yourself. You’ll learn more each time you go out, and hopefully when added to your own training in the classroom and at home via literature, the Internet, etc. one day you will be able to pass this knowledge on to someone else.
Solo Backcountry Skiing
Since I think one of the most useful aspects of articles like this are to foster a conversation with our readers, potential partners in crime, I think a brief discussion based on this readers comment from the first piece is warranted:
“Great list! I know in your second article you will be mentioning none of this is worth beans unless you are in the backcountry with other people who also have the appropriate gear AND know how to use it! (It continues to surprise me to this day when I encounter a solo skier popping out of the backcountry. yeesh.)”
While this comment is right on target I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I never go skiing alone (although my dogs do make for some good company). That said it all depends on your experience, level of hazard acceptance, and overall risk management skills. That is basically the whole point of absolutely every single thing that has to do with skiing in avalanche terrain- risk management. I think it’s important to meditate on this readers comment, but I also think it’s accountable on my behalf to acknowledge a lot of us do ski in the backcountry alone at times. Of course with that decision the already lively risk scenarios also increase, and must be managed and mitigated appropriately.
I do recommend and try to ski with partners as often as possible as it’s safer and more fun. When I ski alone I try and ski an area that I know well and feel is relatively “safe”. It is prudent to remember that it’s ultimately better to have a partner in crime, but if you don’t have one, and you do decide to go out solo, at least make sure someone close to you knows where you’re going, when you plan to be back, and carry a cell-phone or even a SPOT if you have one in case of an emergency. A signaling tool is also a good item to carry when skiing alone, especially in the backcountry.
The Next Step In Gear
There are many other items and aspects to backcountry skiing that need to be taken into consideration depending on your goals and how you wish to develop your skill set. If you’re attempting an overnight trip or want to get into aspects of backcountry skiing that include ski mountaineering, or if you’d like to take an extra step in avalanche safety protocol and use more specialized pieces of safety equipment your overall package changes. In the following section I will briefly touch on added avalanche safety items, basic ski mountaineering equipment, as well as the useful additions of a repair, first aid, and survival kit to your quiver.
Additional Avalanche Safety Items
Simply stated, this item gives you more access to oxygen while you are buried in an avalanche. Some models come sown into a pack so you never really have to think about skiing without it. That has always sounded like the better option to me. I have a stand-alone Avalung, and do use it from time-to-time, but truth be told I don’t wear it often. Any thoughts about whether or not you should own an Avalung should be answered after watching the following video (you can get more info by following the link at the end)
These are becoming more commonplace with each passing ski season. I haven’t noticed many people using them in the Sierra, but in Europe they have a much more visible presence. There’s a lot of talk about these products online that is easily accessible. I’ve watched them deployed at trade shows, watched a few videos, and look forward to testing one in the near future (not in an actual incident). I think this video does a good job of briefly explaining what an airbag is, how it works, and why you might want to own one.
Snow Study Kit
This makes no sense to own unless you know how to use the tools, something you’ll learn in AVI II. Brooks Range makes some of the better products on the market to either put a snow study kit together yourself, piece-by-piece, or you can buy one of their fully stocked packages.
Basic Ski Mountaineering Equipment
The following pieces of gear are commonly used to access ski terrain that has more complex features. Steep couloirs, firm skinning surfaces, and “no-fall zones” are when these items commonly get pulled out for use. This however is a basic ski mountaineering list and doesn’t take into account terrain that travels over and through glaciated terrain, or is inaccessible without the use of a rope.
Think about what you might need out in the field for yourself, but a basic list might look like: duct tape, extra binding parts, super glue, a Leatherman, zip ties, and wire. I love this idea that a reader from the first piece offered, “Make a small kit, get a bag, put it in the bottom of the pack and just let it stay in there all season”. Perfect!
There are 7 main parts to a basic survival kit, however first aid deserves its own listing, and a Leatherman/multi-tool was listed above in the repair kit section. The other parts that make up a basic survival kit include paracord, something to make a shelter out of (an emergency poncho or blanket, or a reflective emergency blanket), something to conduct signaling like a reflective mirror and/or whistle (non-visual), methods of food procurement, water procurement, and a way to create fire. Now it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to carry a stove and fuel, a water pump, and slingshot to hit those last three items, but you can adapt this basic list to backcountry skiing. For example, you could carry a few Iodine tablets, a lighter/waterproof matches, and extra energy food. Also try and get a durable, waterproof container to keep everything organized and protected in your pack.
Go as basic as Advil, Band-Aids, an ace bandage, gauze, antiseptic and antibiotic ointment, and some sterile nonlatex gloves, or go big and get nuts with a plethora of first aid kits widely available from numerous distributors depending on where you look and what you want.
There’s round two of backcountry basics–avalanche education, experience in the field, and more gear. In the scheme of things the more you get going the more that’s left to discuss. From here you might want to know where to go backcountry skiing (duh), what you might want for an overnighter, what an expedition gear list looks like, what gear/knowledge you need to safely ski in glaciated terrain, and more info about other pieces of useful equipment like specialized ski boot liners, sunscreen and a headlamp.
The list goes on and on, but to get going, these two articles should be helpful to get most people started on the right path. So go get on it! It’s another beautiful fall day here in Tahoe, but if you haven’t learned this much yet, things change in an instant around here, and before you know it, it’s going to be full-on winter, and you’re going to want to be skiing as many fresh lines as you can handle when the resort is all tracked-out. But before you can truly be free in the backcountry, you have to get prepared first.