Taking Precautions When Backcountry Skiing

by Donna 28. December 2011 10:05

Staying Safe when Backcountry Skiing
Many skiers who enjoy the great outdoors have taken up backcountry skiing in remote locations, or outside of the borders of regular ski runs. These areas, although seemingly serene, can also put the skier’s life in jeopardy as the threat for an avalanche is increased on terrains beyond the normal boundaries of controlled ski areas. Therefore, if you still persist in wanting to backcountry ski, receiving avalanche safety training is just as important as obtaining specialized gear.

Most Backcountry Skiers and Hikers Trigger Avalanches Themselves
Indeed, knowing how to stay safe from an avalanche is important to backcountry enthusiasts, whether they ski, hike or drive a snowmobile as the majority of people who die in an avalanche trigger the calamity themselves. Plus, if you are buried beneath an avalanche, your chance of surviving the catastrophe diminishes to under 30% if you haven’t been rescued after a half hour.

Some Avalanche Statistics
According to the Colorado Avalanche Center, the majority of avalanche casualties are comprised of young men (between 20 and 29 years old) with 75% of the victims seasoned backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, and hikers. That being the case, you can’t afford to let your guard down if you like to take to the backcountry or pursue off-piste skiing activities.

Signs worth Noting
Signs that you are treading over an area that is prone to avalanche activity comes in the form of such warnings as:

  • A cracked snow pack;
  • An echoing, drumming sound as your walk over hard or compact snow;
  • The occurrence of rain or snow within the last 24 hours;
  • Snow that Is windblown or is characterized by consistent weak layers; and
  • Warming temperatures.

Avalanches Usually Originate on Steep Slopes
Also, when assessing whether or not you are in an avalanche area, look at the degree of the slopes. Avalanches usually form on slopes that are greater than 30 degrees, typically frequenting inclines that angle, specifically, from 30 to 50 degrees. That’s why backcountry or off-piste skiers are often trapped by an avalanche as most ski runs fall within the above range. You can also increase the likelihood that you’ll be caught by an avalanche unawares if you don’t avoid flat terrains or gullies surrounded by steep slopes.

Staying Away from Traps
Besides a flat piece of terrain or gully, other avalanche traps are marked by spots that are defined by a rocky terrain, cliffs, and trees. In addition, avalanches are often triggered in areas where there is a good deal of windblown snow, shallowness in a snowpack, and which are close to rock outcroppings. If you are skiing in a backcountry locale then, stay in areas with low angled ridges and a dense cover of trees. Also, make sure that each member of your group skis down the slope one at a time, or from one point to the next individually.

Special Backcountry Equipment
As you do not have access to chairlifts, again, you’ll need specialized gear. Therefore, your binding system should permit you to navigate inclines, liberating your heels so you can move like a cross-country skier when you climb uphill. Special skins should be included on your skis as well to reduce the chance of sliding on your ascent. Fixed heels are suggested for the binding when skiing downhill.

Ski Shoes for Backcountry Use should be Lighter than Alpine Ski Shoes
Generally, a ski used for off-piste or backcountry skiing is a bit broader and more lightweight than alpine-type skis. Ski shoes for backcountry use should also be lighter than the shoes provided for alpine skiing activities too – thereby making it easier for the backcountry skier to climb and walk over the more precipitous terrain.

Essential Backcountry Accessories
Other accessory items that are essential backcountry aids include:

  • Inclinometer (for measuring the steepness of slopes);
  • Compass;
  • GPS;
  • Crampons (for trekking over ice);
  • Avalanche beacon;
  • Avalanche probe;
  • Telescoping poles;
  • Ice axe;
  • Snow shovel (collapsible);and an
  • Avalung backpack or sling (used for breathing under the snow in case of an avalanche).

One Final Comment
Black Diamond is a brand that is well-recognized for providing avalungs to skiers, mountain climbers, and hikers.


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