Six key backcountry elements to consider before heading out

Australia's backcountry. Photo credit: Tomas Lesa/Shutterstock

With limited avalanche terrain in Australia, we are lucky to have a relatively safe alpine playground, but that’s not to say things don’t happen here and that education isn’t necessary.

They do and it is.

There are many things that only come from experience and time on the skin track that become part of our ongoing evaluation of conditions and impact our decision making. Guides and backcountry professionals rely on this experience and these instincts, checklists and “Daily Planners” to keep clients safe.

Equipment and knowledge are key, then add these six elements backcountry skiers and boarders need to take into account before heading out.

Weather, it changes

Five minutes is a long time in the backcountry and being able to stay ahead of what are often fast moving changes is an essential skill. Weather can change very quickly and getting caught out in unfamiliar terrain in a white-out is no fun. Neither is a blizzard or rain for that matter.

Planning is everything but don’t bet your life on things being or remaining exactly as you expect. Too often people who have planned a backcountry weekend weeks in advance have, despite the torrid weather, gone out regardless of the conditions because they have taken time off work and it’s the only time everyone is available.

Being across the weather is as important as anything else you learn on your backcountry journey and making good choices about timing, objectives, destination and having a plan B is crucial.

Surface conditions versus ability level

The other thing that changes quickly are surface conditions. An early start while the snow is hard and fast can be a massive advantage especially on a long day tour. A slope with a solar aspect can be great skiing all day even if a little heavy, up until the sun moves off it, the temperature drops a few degrees and all of a sudden after a long day out you have to deal with breakable crust on the way home.

Not everybody will deal well with these conditions. A lot of injuries happen late in the day, people are tired and the conditions deteriorating. Understanding the skill level and make-up of your group and making decisions based on abilities and fitness is important.


What about a rapidly changing snowpack?

So you have read the Daily Hazard Rating from Mountain Safety Collective and think you have the avalanche and surface conditions covered for your backcountry day. Just because you have got the current bulletin and understand it, does not mean you are safe.

Looking for real time clues and observations about the snowpack, being able to adapt to those real time conditions and being flexible enough to adapt or change your plans accordingly is another essential skill.

Some of the things mountain guides regularly look out for are; recent heavy snowfall, wind loading, rapidly rising temperatures, shooting cracks, and recent avalanche debris. These are all “red flags” and can indicate an unstable snowpack.

Terrain, understand it

A large number of incidences occur when the danger rating is “Moderate” or “Considerable”. If you are not overly familiar with the ATES (Avalanche Terrain Evaluation Scale) and other parts of a comprehensive bulletin it is easy to under-estimate the dangers.

“Considerable” does not suggest an overly high risk, however if you read the explanation it outlines that natural avalanches are possible and human triggered avalanches LIKELY. Even when the rating is “Moderate” avalanche conditions on specific terrain features like convexities are heightened, and these are exactly the types of aesthetic slopes we look at and naturally want to ride.

Learning how to interpret all the information available in a professional avalanche danger bulletin and understanding the three A’s, Aspect, Angle and Altitude, is vital. Read the danger rating only and ignore the rest of the available information at your peril.

Why you need to do an avalanche course in Australia this winter

Spatial awareness

With large numbers in the backcountry, triggering an avalanche could have more consequences than with just your party. One of the worst scenarios is having a slope above you being traversed or skied by individuals or another group and setting off a slide that takes your group out. Or transversely, your group cutting a slope above others who may be unaware or have no opportunity to move to safer ground.

Being aware of all that is going on around you in terms of your possible impact on other groups is your responsibility, and you cannot rely on other groups to be thinking about your safety.

Ski and snowboard buddies

One of the biggest decisions you will make is with regard to your touring partners. It is also one of the more difficult to navigate. It’s one thing to be relaxed about who is with you on Guthega Trig, another if taking on the Western Faces.

As soon as you leave Australia and venture into bigger terrain and higher snowfall areas overseas (even going out the gates in Japan) these decisions will become all important. Education, training, first aid, experience, attitude and communication skills are all part of the makeup of a good backcountry partner.

If you turn up to a trailhead in North America these days and want to find touring partners the usual first question is about education. Have you done AST 1 (Avalanche Skills Training). When shit goes down and you are relying on your partners to deal with a rescue, trauma, getting lost, having to take leadership or dealing with whatever scenario arises, you want to be sure of your companions.

Listen to podcasts like The Avalanche Hour, Totally Deep, or The Fine Line to understand how important your choices are. These are great resources and deal with real events and issues.

We are all capable of mistakes and can be guilty of powder panic at times.

There are plenty of questions about how with so much available information and resources things still go so wrong for even the most experienced. Sometimes we switch off when we are constantly bombarded with the negatives. Don’t do this, don’t do that!

I get that but this is a serious endeavour. Go out into the beautiful alpine environment, but plan well, have the correct equipment and knowledge, stay focused, stay safe and enjoy getting it right.

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Dave Herring is an AST1 Instructor & Guide including Canadian Avalanche Association Operations Level 1 and is a Canadian Avalanche Association Active Member. A 10 year volunteer ski patroller, he is the founder of Alpine Access Australia and has been guiding backcountry tours in Australia and Japan since 2012.