Rule #1: Obey the Signs
On a bluebird day last March, I was halfway down a 1,500-foot ribbon of snow that plunged off the south face of Mount Helen, a 13,164-foot peak outside Breckenridge, Colorado. By 11 a.m., the couloir we’d planned to ski was already far too warm and soft. So we retreated. Kind of. We scoped a 38-degree strip that traced alpine tundra to the valley floor. It felt firmer, so we dropped in. One at a time we arced turns, making sure to stay close to the tundra just in case.
I set my edge above a pile of rocks, and suddenly my ski broke through the wet surface, as if dropping through a trapdoor. Hollow. Two cautious turns later, to my horror, the slope released below me. It propagated out to the sides and went from zero to 60 in an instant. The slide gutted the slope, ripping out trees and triggering two deeper avalanches before rumbling over a cliff and piling up far below in a massive debris mound as hard as concrete. I glanced down at my skis teetering above the initial two-foot-high fracture. I’d never felt so mortal. Or stupid.
Scott Toepfer, the senior forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, once told me the key to safe backcountry skiing is to look for reasons why you shouldn’t ski a certain line—then heed them. The reasons were there that day on Mount Helen, but we discounted them in favor of the bliss we thought awaited us—a mindset Toepfer says is a backcountry skier’s biggest hurdle. “You have to be able to turn it down a notch and take low-angle terrain if the conditions warrant,” Toepfer says. “You can still have a great day, and you’ll still drink a beer afterwards.”
In hindsight, the natural avalanche activity we saw from the summit—maybe a day old and on a similar aspect—should have alerted us to the slope’s fragility. We also underestimated exactly how much sun the high-elevation snow at 12,300 feet had absorbed during our ascent, softening it to a dangerous state. If we’d truly been looking for reasons not to ski the slope, as Toepfer suggests, we would’ve found them.
WHERE TO LEARN
Exum Mountain Guides; Jackson, Wyoming
On Saturdays from mid-December through March, Exum guides teach an intro backcountry course at Teton Pass or Grand Teton National Park. Learn everything from kick-turns to important snow-safety decisions. Book your spot at least 24 hours in advance. [from $100; exumguides.com]
California Alpine Guides; Mammoth Lakes, California
During a three-day introductory backcountry tour in Lassen or Sequoia National Park, you’ll learn the basics of traveling in avalanche terrain and navigating with a map, compass, and GPS—and you’ll do it while winter camping.
Eastern Mountain Sports; North Conway, New Hampshire
This one-day backcountry primer takes place at the base of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, but you won’t ski the peak right away. Instead, learn how to skin efficiently, use avalanche transceivers, and bring the right gear. EMS also offers advanced backcountry tours throughout New England and the Adirondacks. [from $160; emsski.com]
Utah Mountain Adventures; Salt Lake City, Utah
After spending the first day of a two-day seminar perfecting uphill technique and route selection, you’ll spend the second day on a longer tour to a Wasatch summit, where you’ll learn how to read snow stability. [$280; utahmountainadventures.com]
A FEW MORE TIPS
Measure your slope angle
“Any slope steeper than 30 degrees is risky. If you want to charge, go to a slope where you know it’s safe. Dig multiple pits, keep track of the layers, and remember, trees or previous tracks don’t make a slope safe.” —Jeannie Wall, five-time North American ski-mountaineering champion
Convex slopes—ones that roll over like a bulge—tend to be higher risk for slides, especially at the top of the rollover. Concave slopes—ones that curve like the insides of a cup—are generally safer, but they can collect sketchy windblown snow and don’t provide many exit opportunities.
Exit This Way
Always have an exit plan. During the ascent and descent, locate islands of safety (on ridgetops, on spines, below cliffs) to aim for if the slope rips.
Check the aspect
In midwinter, north-facing slopes tend to have greater avalanche danger, due to deeper snow and increased layering from wind and a lack of sunlight. In late springtime, it’s reversed: South-facing aspects get nuked by the sun and are more prone to wet slides. But know this: Three-quarters of fatal avalanches occur on slopes facing northwest, north, or east.
Follow the forecast
If The Weather Channel is reporting snowfall of several inches of accumulation per hour, high winds, and cold and rapidly changing temperatures, stay inbounds. The more rapidly it’s snowing, the higher the risk of a slide.