With more people trying out backcountry trekking, proper training is key
So what does it take to get into the Alpine touring game? It starts with four basic pieces of gear: skins, Alpine touring or AT bindings, touring-specific boots and any kind of all-mountain or powder ski. Some avid ski mountaineers opt for special light-weight narrow AT specific skis to travel faster.
Skins — which get their names from the early days of ski mountaineering when animal skins were used — are essentially synthetic strips coarse horse hair-like material attached to the bottom of the skis to gain traction while traveling uphill. They’re removed for downhill travel.
AT bindings are similar to a cross-country skis in that the heel releases to help forward motion. The bindings lock for downhill, like a standard Alpine binding.
The boots also have a release switch so the ankles can move more freely for uphill travel. They too lock in place for downhill.
For snowboarders there are also splitboards — designed to be taken apart for uphill travel like skis and then reattached for riding back down.
If you’re staying inbounds, that’s enough gear to start.
Anyone venturing into the backcountry should also add an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel to their gear bag. Beacons help find you, should you be buried, and vastly increase chance of survival in a slide. Avalanche safety training is also essential for anyone considering the next step into the backcountry.
As I stood on the above-timberline ridge eyeing a potential line to ski, the ground beneath me suddenly shifted ever so slightly; it felt as if the snowpack under my feet just exhaled.
Alone on the ridge high above the old mining remains of Mayflower Gulch, my mind raced.
Did that just happen?
There had been others on the ridge not long before. They might be out of earshot now.
When cracks appear in the snow before an avalanche, or there is the audible “wompf” of snowpack shifting, it’s usually too late. There often isn’t more than a split second between the bond in the snowpack failing and a slope giving way to a slide. If you’re lucky you’ll ski out of it. Or if the slope’s not too steep the snow may simply settle after the shift.
A quick glance at the ground showed no cracks.
Maybe I had imagined it. Regardless, a safer spot, away from the small cornice, remained the priority. Ignoring warning signs or gut feelings can be a costly mistake with backcountry travel.
In the hours prior to standing on that ridge, I’d watched from below as another group of skiers carved some fresh tracks on a different part of the slope. But existing tracks aren’t necessarily reliable safety indicators, no more so than the assumption a slope won’t slide just because you’ve never seen it slide before.
This past December, the winter’s first fatal avalanche occurred on a skin track that had already been broken by a previous skier Alpine touring. Three snowshoers were traveling along the trail under an avalanche-loaded slope when a slide released above them, catching and killing one member of the group.
Had that group opted to break a new trail in a meadow only a short distance from the existing one, they would have all been fine. The group had reportedly acknowledged the risk but ignored warning signs and chose the trail anyway.
In similar incidents, it is often the risks and warning signs that are ignored that prove fatal.
Taking a step back to firmer ground I reassessed my position and took a deep breath. Behind me, my dog Ike, a husky malamute mix, stared back at me, eager for action.
Had the cornice I was standing near broken, it likely wouldn’t have been much more than a pile of snow at the top of the ridge. With a roughly 30-degree angle on the slope below and avalanche risk at a two on the five-point danger scale, there wasn’t much of a chance for a significant slide. But that’s a risk I still wasn’t willing to take.
Collecting myself I took in the the surroundings once again.
There’s something special about being on top of a ridgeline alone, with only jagged peaks as neighbors, and taking that run on untracked snow.
It’s the draw of the backcountry — the peace and quiet far removed from lift lines and groomed slopes. While Mayflower Gulch is just a few miles from Copper Mountain — its lift towers visible in a distant bowl — standing there still feels like being miles from anywhere.
The game of risk versus reward is ever-present and shouldn’t be ignored. But in truth those dangers can be mitigated with the right decisions.
Every year, between six and eight backcountry users die in avalanches in Colorado alone. It’s the highest average of fatal incidents in the country, and could be on the rise with increased backcountry usage.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene cites a combination of factors for the higher fatality rate, including the number of population centers in the state and the volume of backcountry traffic compared to other areas. But perhaps most significant are the weather systems that create an unstable snowpack in this part of the country.
“Because of the climate we have here, we tend to get these structural problems in the snowpack for weeks and months, rather than just days,” he explained.
As a result of warming and cooling weather patterns or longer periods without snow, more weak layers can build in the snowpack and linger, leading to extended threats. Certain slopes can spend entire seasons with the same weak layer in the snowpack remaining a concern.
“There’s rarely a green light for us in Colorado,” he added. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t go out and have a good time, but it does mean you have to know about avalanches and be careful.”
Most of the time when an incident involving a person occurs, it’s a result of human error. The avalanche is triggered either by the person in the slide or someone else in the group.
And it’s not always the big slides that are deadly, said Greene.
“I’m always surprised at the size of avalanches that people can survive, and the small avalanches that can kill people.”
Generally, most accidents occur during lower periods of avalanche risk, when forecasters rate the danger at moderate or considerable — a two or three on their five-point scale. At those ratings, natural avalanches are unlikely, but the risk of human-caused slides is either rated as likely or considerable, under certain conditions.
There’s no single cause or underlying factor in fatal incidents, but rather a host of common possibilities. Sometimes it’s overconfidence or familiarity with terrain, other times it’s being blinded to warning signals because of a desire for fresh tracks — a sort of powder fever. A group mentality can also lead to ignoring signals.
Whatever the reason accidents continue to happen. And with indications that backcountry travel is on the rise, it’s of increasing concern among organizations like the CAIC, the group responsible for avalanche forecasting.
But the truth, Greene said, is that with the right precautions and proper education the risks in the backcountry can be reduced exponentially.
“There’s a lot of common mistakes out there. Some very basic snow safety approaches will get you where you want to go,” he explained, adding, “If you stick to low angle slopes, there’s a lot of fun you can have without taking too much risk.”
While the numbers may seem shocking — two of the last three years have seen winters with over 30 avalanche fatalities nationwide and there has been a steady rise in fatal incidents since the early ’70s — the reality may be that fatal slides are actually pretty rare, considering the number of people choosing the backcountry for recreation.
“We have lots of indications that backcountry use in Colorado is growing at a staggering rate,” Greene said. A simple look at local trailhead parking lots will enforce his assertion. “Seeing how many people are out there and the amount of use, it’s been growing. The last five years it seems like it’s growing even faster.”
While the CAIC doesn’t have numbers for Colorado beyond fatalities, according to SnowSports Industries of America, the trade association responsible for measuring ski industry trends, backcountry-related ski and snowboard gear is the fastest growing segment of the industry.
Surveys by the group also estimate that over 2 million U.S. skiers and snowboarders identified themselves as having at least sampled non-resort backcountry terrain during the 2013-14 season. That number has fluctuated somewhat in down snow years but has risen steadily since the winter of 2008-09, when SIA reported the number at around 1.79 million.
BACK TO THE ‘FRONTCOUNTRY’
That growth in the market in terms of gear sales, however, isn’t simply related to the backcountry. Increasing numbers of skiers are ditching the chairlift for inbound Alpine touring at a lot of Colorado resorts.
Inbound Alpine touring or ski mountaineering — traveling uphill on skis to ski back down — has become increasingly popular in recent years. So much so that resorts have had to develop policies to accommodate them.
Rather than traveling in the backcountry, skiers and boarders have been using the “earn your turns” mentality inbounds. For some it’s a morning workout to “skin up” — ski uphill using heel release bindings and climbing skins that attach to skis for traction — groomed runs before the lifts open.
Places like Arapahoe Basin Ski Area even have uphill ski mountaineering racing series.
Beyond a workout, inbound Alpine touring has become a great way to introduce less experienced skiers to some of the appeals of backcountry skiing in a safe environment.
BACK AT MAYFLOWER …
My day passed without incident. Ike and I charged a low-angle slope farther along the ridge, closer to existing tracks.
At the bottom of the bowl near one of the above-timberline mining cabins, I couldn’t help but smile looking back up at my line.
But the possibility of any potential close call, real or imagined, is still enough to make me think twice. It’s those moments you carry with you every time you go out. Experience you build on, so you continue to make the right decisions.
There’s never any shame in erring on the side of caution. The consequences are too great.
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