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Think Snow (Safety)

It’s the start of the season. You can’t wait for enough snow to either cover up the rocks (if you’re in alpine areas) or bend down the small trees and bury the grapevines in jungle-y places like Myoko Kogen. Powder fever is a dangerous thing. Too often, too many people charge out without really thinking about that shifting, fluid, beautiful and sometimes dangerous stuff known as snow.

Just strapping on an avalanche beacon, even as good as they are now, won’t make you safe. Making a decision based on data from digging a snowpit won’t ensure your safety either. Learning how to be safer out there in the snow is actually a lot of fun; teaching people how to think about their gear, the weather, the terrain and those around them is one of my favorite things to do in winter (next to actually skiing in the snow, of course).

Having a better awareness of the factors involved so you can safely enjoy the backcountry adds a lot to the whole experience of being out in nature. We can’t go over everything here in detail, but, perhaps, we can help you start thinking a bit more about what you’re doing when you are out in the backcountry.

Sidecountry is Backcountry
There’s something about proximity that gives people a false sense of security. If the ski area is close by, the snow must be safer, right? If you’re skiing sidecountry—straight from the lifts into the ungroomed, out-of-bounds areas—you’re in the backcountry. Most fatal sidecountry (AKA “slackcountry”) accidents have been right around resorts—someone hiking just a few hundred meters up, crossing a slope to get back to the resort, getting caught in a loose snow avalanche and then getting buried more than two meters down. Or a snowboarder just outside the resort crashing upside down in deep, unconsolidated new snow and not being able to get out. It happens every season.

I often thought about that last season as I did my daily snowpit check in back of our guide center. We do a foot penetration test—seeing how far one foot goes down when you step into the snow and put all your weight on it. Last year we had some epic snows, and doing the “foot pen” test often meant digging my way back out. The snow was so unsettled, so unconsolidated, so full of air it was seemingly bottomless as I’d go in up to my waist. That’s a hint that it might not be so smart to go out alone—or at all. Still, going sidecountry means you must have a transceiver, shovel and probe—and know how to use them.

Know thy Transceiver
Modern, digital, three-antenna avalanche beacons are amazing little units. All are compatible with each other, and, because they’re digital, many of them can have their firmware upgraded if an issue or improvement comes up. But the makers all approach things differently, so you have to know your device’s unique features. Many of them are full of special features—and I usually find that most people have no idea of how to use them.

Something like 85% of all avalanche accidents involve just one victim, but there’s always a chance that several people might get caught in a slide. You have to be quick in finding that one victim, but you also need to know how your transceiver handles multiple burials. The only way is to read those instructions and practice often. Bury one unit and see how quickly you can find it. Bury it in different positions so the signals vary; put more than one unit in the snow. Practice enough so you can consistently find the beacons in seconds, not minutes.

Do the Dig
Shoveling is hard. If you practice well, your transceiver should get you to a victim quickly. Probing (there’s a pattern to probing) won’t take long. Shoveling is the most time-consuming, horrific, sweat-inducing part of the rescue. Practice this, too; look up strategic shoveling, and discover smart ways of efficiently moving a lot of snow, saving the diggers’ strength and successfully extracting and treating a victim. Then get a team together, put a probe down two meters and practice speed digging.

Know the World Around You
Just knowing yesterday’s weather isn’t enough in assessing today’s danger. You need to know what’s been happening over days or even weeks. Wind, sun, snowfall, temperature all play a part in creating potential weak layers in the snow. Knowing something that happened days ago, which could mean a problem in the snow, is important intel to have. Again, doing a daily study plot has been very helpful for my operations—what we see at the base usually translates to things we can predict on the hill.

Having that background on the current snowpack is extremely helpful in deciding if you should even go out. If you have no information and just head up the slope to dig a pit for a compression test, you might discover what I did once early on in my backcountry days—that you’re in the middle of a steep slope and the test shows the snow is ready to slide at any second. Now you’re trying to figure how to get off the hill without getting yourself buried.

Get out and check the terrain a lot, too. Every year I see someone climbing up a valley underneath huge overhanging cornices. This takes some studying, too, but ask the locals as well—if someone asks me about terrain and safety, I’m not going to hold back on the information (ask me the best place to ride, though, and you might get some disinformation).

Reject Peer Pressure
During two rescues here in the Myoko backcountry last winter, there was one common theme: people had a schedule. And the schedule was more important than the conditions. A rainy, windy day with terrible visibility, and a woman went off the back of a ridge. High winds and cold weather resulted in a huge, weak cornice that the guy went out onto, then tumbled to the bottom of the valley when it collapsed.

You have to be able to say “no” when the conditions just aren’t right. Most often there’s a lower, flatter slope where you can still have fun—a nice powdery, but safe, ride through the trees. Maybe it’s just goofing around on the groomers (and you really could improve those turns, right?). Group pressure can be a terrible thing, either from an over-ambitious leader (so many accidents year-round in Japan are because of this) or a noisy, aggressive group member, who’s usually not very technically proficient, seems to be the rule. It’s hard to be the naysayer, but it’s better to see another day than to pay for the rescue efforts, which are not cheap in Japan—or something even worse.

The powder will come again, and there will always be an almost-perfect day to enjoy it.

Bill Ross is CAA Level 1 certified, a BCA Pro Advisory Guide, K2 Japan Guide Team rider and a founding member and Vice-Chairman of the Myoko search and rescue organization. He guides and provides snow safety instruction, including for the Freeride World Tour, from his base in Myoko. He and his teams also regularly hold training sessions and guide in the mountains around Myoko Kogen. To learn more, visit dancingsnow.com

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