Preparing for Unstable Snow

A word or two of avy advice from a San Juan snow mama... Avalanches are on my mind all day, every day, all winter here in Colorado's San Juan mountains.  Silverton, you may have heard of it, is the town I'm proud to call home.  Our impressive snowfall each winter is gift-wrapped along with hurricane-force wind events, arctic temps that swing up to 40 degrees from night to day, apocalyptic dessert dustings, high-altitude sun crusts, and the most fertile facet gardens in North America.  Righteous, no?  Here's the thing, though; there are dozens of couliors everywhere you look, the snow is always, always, always light and dry, and the entire range is dotted with sick ski huts on old mining claims. We've got snow cats, ski lifts, helicopters, skin tracks, boot packs, open gates and tight lips.  It's a backcountry mecca, yet you are guaranteed to have your slope du jour to yourself. 

I work as a ski guide, avalanche instructor and patroller.  I play as a ski mountaineer and ice climber.  That time in the field, coupled with months of my life lost to indoor avalanche coursework, has taught me a thing or two (and instilled in me an aversion to Power Point bordering on allergy).  Below please find a few nuggets of advice that I have gleaned through my work, play and study. 

Prepare for battle. Suit up and head into the field with the right beacon, shovel and probe.  Three-antenna beacons are demonstrating faster find times with both novice and expert backcountry users.  Your shovel should be burly; numerous shovels on the market have crumbled when put to the test.  Choose one that can move snow and stay intact when chopping through concrete-hard avalanche debris.  Likewise, buy a probe that can take a beating.  Light gear is no good when it breaks!   Finish the look with with a helmet and an Avalung; these things not only help protect you in a slide but should remind you of the consequences of a miscalculation or poor decision every time you put them on. 

Calculate the angle of the dangle. An inclinometer is your best friend in the backcountry.  Avalanches are most frequent on slopes ranging between 30 and 45 degrees.  You should know exactly how steep your slope of choice is. Keep in mind that the sick, steep line you've been eyeing may not be your undoing; mellower slopes you are traveling on or under can also take you out. 

Don't kill one person at a time. Your travel techniques should never trump good terrain selection.  Yes, you should ride one at a time from safe zone to safe zone and you shouldn't hang in runouts.  Yes, you should have an escape route planned and watch your partners when they ski.   But you should be confident about that slope's stability before you send your buddy to hang it out in a slide path.  You can not make a slope more stable by skiing it more conservatively. 

Borrow mom's copy of "Buns of Steel." Being a fit backcountry user aids your decision making power immensely. You will have the energy to circumnavigate runouts, back off from the gnar and lap the goods.  It is also hard to contribute to a group's decision if you are pulling in to de-skin 10 minutes after your compadres have had the yea or nay discussion.

Read the damn avalanche report. 'nuf said. 

Learn to ballroom dance. Having interests outside of shredding pow will not only get you a date, it may help keep you from being pummeled by the big one.  Here in the San Juans we head out skate skiing (see tip #4), grab our tools to session the Ouray Ice Park or poach our neighbor's wireless to stream episodes of Flight of the Conchords.  There is a lot to do out there. If you can't keep yourself mellow on the high danger days, do something else. 

Check yourself before you wreck yourself. All the snow science in the world can't combat what we have come to call "human factors."  Ego, stoke, goal-orientation, over-confidence, powder euphoria, meekness; identify the characteristics in both you and your partners which predispose you to a day gone bad.  And watch out for "heuristic traps," or shortcuts, in your decision making.  Such things as being familiar with the terrain, or assuming the ski patroler in your tour group will keep you safe, can lull you into an unwarranted sense of confidence and predispose you to taking risks. 

Bring a girl along. The data is mixed on this one, but I'll offer a personal perspective. Not only are ladies rad company, but having a woman in the group increases the chances that all members will come back in one piece, provided that advice nugget #7 has been adhered to. Women have an ability in reign it in when the psyche is rendering the group powder blind.  The hang-ups of ego, pride and willy-wagging are often not as pervasive in ladies (though we are, of course, not immune).  And their powder-crushing force is strong.