Staying alive

Posted on Oct 24, 2016

I’ve been skiing in avalanche terrain for more than 30 years. This winter will mark 22 years of heli ski guiding, a pursuit which has us skiing in uncontrolled avalanche terrain with a greater frequency than any other.

I’ve been reflecting on the risks associated with such a high level of exposure, and I’d like to share with recreational backcountry riders certain aspects of how we do this game professionally, which will also be useful to recreational riders.

The main things I wish to highlight are a methodical planning process, keen observation, and humility.

I’ve discussed the need for humility and self-awareness in previous blogs, and Ken Wylie has written eloquently about the human element in decision making (here and here). So it is the other two points that I want to focus on this time: a methodical planning process and keen observation.

In the professional ski guiding world, we use a very structured approach to our decision making. Guides will follow a defined set of steps to assess current and forecasted hazards, and will choose terrain with an acceptable level of risk. We will typically have a plan B and even a plan C as far as terrain choice if information in the field suggests we need to make adjustments to our original plan. Weather assessment is also crucial, as is the consideration of other hazards such as glaciers, creeks, the group’s abilities, etc.

I’ve developed a trip planning tool that provides a structure for recreational backcountry riders to plan their own tours. You can download it here.

If you’ve done an AST1 or AST2 course, the planning tool should look pretty familiar: most of it is covered in the AST1 curriculum. Having said that, there are some valuable tricks to learn when using a planning process like this. A great place to learn them is on our AST Plus course. On this single-day course, you’ll go through a morning meeting using this tool to plan your day. Then you’ll spend a full day touring, applying the plan in the field and learning at every opportunity (while getting some sweet turns in!). The day concludes with a structured debrief to leverage maximum learning and experience. The goal is to show you a template for how to organize your backcountry touring days in a way that manages risk and maximizes fun while also getting full value from the day in terms of building your experience in the backcountry.

Finally, there's the importance of keen observation. The bottom line on this is that you can plan as meticulously as you like (and indeed you should), but none of this planning will be of any use if you are not verifying or refuting your predictions when you get into the field for the day. This means you need to be a keen observer. Is there more or less new snow than you expected? Has the wind been blowing from the direction you thought it had been? Are you seeing signs of instability in the snow? Is it warming up more than you thought it would and is this affecting the feel of the snow? The list of questions is endless and it’s your job to be asking them, having your senses turned on at all times so that you can make adjustments to your plan as required.

If this all sounds a bit exhausting, don’t worry. At first it may seem like a lot to think about, but over time, it all becomes a habit and part of your normal routine when riding in the backcountry. With the hazards in the backcountry being what they are – and death being a potential outcome of bad decisions – I don’t think the alternative to good planning, keen observation and humility is an option!

Our first avalanche course of the season is already fully booked and the second one has just a few spots remaining. We have a number of other trips scheduled that still have space, and we are always ready to hear from you if you have other dates in mind that we are not yet offering, especially if you have a group of people who are interested in a certain date. Get in touch with us at any time if so.

Get stoked! Sliding on the snow is just around the corner.

Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides