Avalanches are an all too real risk of life in the mountains. Thankfully, resorts in North America (like Whistler Blackcomb) do all they can to prevent and control avalanches. They accomplish this through active weather forecasting, snow pack analysis and through the use of explosives. Their main objective is to set off avalanches intentionally before a skier or snowboarder can set them off by accident. This way, all the heavy, loaded snow is moved to a safe place and skiers and snowboarders alike can enjoy the entire resort without the fear of setting off an avalanche. This is great for those who like to stay in the resort but more and more people are starting to break free from the comforts of these resorts and into the untamed backcountry. We have put this post together to give you a basic understanding of what you need in order to be prepared for a backcountry adventure. Disclaimer: This post should not be used in place of training by a professional backcountry guide.
This is the MOST important aspect of backcountry preparedness. Without training, essential backcountry tools are useless and could prevent you from recovering a friend caught in a slide. Taking a course like an Avalanche Safety Training Level 1 (AST 1) will teach you to recognise avalanche terrain, assess the risks associated with backcountry touring and most importantly, it will teach you how to use life-saving backcountry equipment. These courses usually span 3 days and combine classroom and practical components. This is also a great way to learn from the experts how to use essential gear like skins, touring bindings, split boards etc. These courses are also great places to meet new friends who are also interested in exploring the backcountry for the first time. There are also higher level courses that allow you to touch up on previously learned fundamentals, can teach you how to lead a group in the backcountry or dive further into the science of snow. Do yourself and everyone you love a favour and take an avalanche safety course before leaving the controlled boundary of the resort.
Training Schools in Whistler: Mountain Skills Academy, Canada West Mountain School & Coast Mountain Guides
AST 1: $200 - $300
AST 2: $500 - $600
There are three key tools that everyone in the backcountry must have. These are a transceiver (also called a beacon), a backcountry shovel and a probe. A transceiver is the most important piece of equipment of the three. This is what will help you find a friend in an avalanche or conversely, help a friend find you! Every transceiver has a send and a receive function (aka transmit and search). All transceivers work on similar frequencies so even if you and your buddy might not have the exact same brand of transceiver, you should still be able to find each other. However, always check and see if your transceiver works with every other transceiver in the group and do this before heading into the backcountry! Transceivers are all battery powered so always double check to make sure yours has enough battery life. Batteries should be replaced after they dip below 60% and your beacon should tell you what kind of charge your batteries have. Backcountry shovels are great to carry with you, even when you are inbounds. You never know when you might need to dig someone out of a tree well. They are light weight and are usually collapsable. This lets them fit into nearly any style of backpack. Some even come with a snow saw built into the shaft of the shovel for testing the snowpack. Probes are used to test the snow height in a given area and to find buried comrades when you get as close as possible with your probe. They pack small but are easily extended up to 3 m (12 ft). They have a wire that connects the two ends and when pulled tight, ensures the pole does not collapse during use.
Another piece of gear that can be very useful and should be considered is an Airbag avalanche backpack. These packs contain either a canister of compressed gas or a quickly inflating fan that blows up an inflatable bag much like how your car airbag works (without the explosion). These are extremely useful as they not only keep riders above the avalanche as they are carried down the mountain but they also can prevent injury as the airbag protects the ski or snowboarder's head and neck.
Places To Get Gear: Escape Route & Excess Backcountry
Transceiver: $400 - $700
Shovels: $60 - $75
Probe: $60 - $85
AirBag Avy Pack: $1,000 - $1,200
So yo have your shovel, beacon and probe, you have taken your course and are ready to hit the backcountry, right? Not quite, even though all these items are essential for backcountry travel when things go wrong, they tend to go really wrong. This is why before you head out you might want to consider packing these additional items in your day pack. They are:
- Head lamp
- Safety/emergency blanket
- Map and compass
- Basic first aid kit
- Satellite distress location system (like SPOT)
- Extra layers
- Extra food and water
- Fire lighting equipment (old inner tubes work great as a starter fuel)
- Utility knife
If someone is caught in an avalanche, there is a good chance that they are going to have sustained some injuries during their ride. This means that you may need to be prepared to hunker down and wait for a rescue.
The backcountry is meant to be about fun, adventure and skiing fresh lines that not everyone can access. They key is to use your head, stay safe and live to ride another day. Respect the backcountry, be prepared, be fearful and stay alert; it will save your life!