There are three golden rules to going out in the mountains. In order of importance they are: get home safe, stay friends with your partner and accomplish your objective.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains doing all sorts of sports people would call risky; many mountain activities have a certain element of risk to them and managing that risk is crucial. There are plenty of tools to keep in your kit that will help you in your adventures, while they’re all important, awareness is the best chance we have of avoiding a catastrophe. I hope everybody reading this will take my words to heart and do their best stay safe this winter!
Lots of us like going out of bounds at resorts and hiking for some fresh turns in untouched pow. We often tell ourselves that because we’re at the resort it’s much safer then being in the true backcountry, but that statement couldn’t be more false. There’s a ton of work done by professionals to make sure resorts are safe places to ski/board but that safety ends at the fence. The biggest danger being in the slack country is the lack of beacons, shovels, probes and knowledge. Without these things in your kit the odds of you saving a friends life (or having your life saved) in the event of a slide are almost nonexistent. It might seem like a big expense but you have to ask yourself, “Is it worth my life or the life of a friend?” Get a beacon, shovel, probe and know how to use them!
Avalanche air bags are a wonderful piece of gear, and as an invention that has saved countless lives, it is an excellent addition to your backcountry tool kit. While air bags are well meaning and intended as a life-saving piece of equipment, I do have a bit of a bone to pick with the way people treat them.
The unfortunate issue with air bags is that people tend to take bigger risks because they’re wearing them, counting on it to save them in a slide. A surprising 26% of Canadian avalanche deaths are caused by blunt force trauma and not by suffocation resulting from a burial, and of the 74% of burial victims, 13% of them suffered serious trauma to their bodies. In the event that you trigger the slide, an airbag will keep you on top, but interestingly it’s just as common to get hit by a slide when you’re crossing a slide path. The terminal velocity of an avalanche is 150 km/hr, and no airbag in the world will save you if you get hit by a wall of snow that’s coming at you like a speeding freight train. Most slides in the alpine continue down past tree level so if you’re caught up in that slide there’s a really good chance you’ll be slammed into at least a tree on the way down. There’s been people dug out who had almost every bone in their bodies broken, and cases where they dug up pieces of people who’d been blown apart by the force of the snow hitting them or by them getting swept through the trees.
If we’re getting morbid here, I remember hearing about one horrifying case on K2 where all they could find was a boot (foot still in it) and an eyeball. I prefer to think of air bags as the backcountry equivalent of a seatbelt. You shouldn’t make dangerous decisions driving because you’re wearing a seatbelt, much like wearing an avalanche air bag should never be the deciding factor between riding that line or backing down.
The knowledge to effectively asses the risks, asses the snow conditions and identify what to do in the event of a slide is the most crucial tool to have in your kit. Take your AST 1 & 2 courses, and while I know they’re expensive, no amount of money saved is worth your life. Be conservative, if you have a doubt about the snowpack or a bad gut feeling, don’t do it! Ask yourself, “Am I prepared to die today?” It might sound like I’m being dramatic, but the risk is very real. I’ll say it again, if you’re not 100% sure, DON’T DO IT. Check the avalanche forecast and know what it means!
Being careful and even conservative in avalanche territory is important; stats have shown that the majority of avalanche victims, like car crash victims, are young males. If you have doubts, stand up and speak your mind; don’t allow yourself to be pressured into doing something you’re not confident can be done safely. The only thing I can think of more traumatizing than being buried in an avalanche and surviving is having to dig out a dead friend or family member. By all means go out and have fun this winter, just don’t do it at the expense of getting home in one piece. I’ve included some links below I strongly recommend checking out, the more you know!
While this is a great start, there’s no shame in being over prepared, especially if we’re expecting the worst. These are some excellent places to keep on learning about the best ways of gearing up for avalanche country.