Avalanche Safety Rules for Backcountry Skiers

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As most avid skiers will attest, ripping through a line of powder is as close as a human can get to frictionless motion. Professional skier Chris Anthony is addicted to that sensation. “There’s nothing quite like the freedom of being on a non-tracked slope without the restrictions and boundaries of everyday situations,” he says. And he should know. Anthony has spent much of his career with Warren Miller Entertainmentdropping off cliffs and plowing down peaks in Alaska, South America, Europe, and Asia as cameras roll. When he’s not filming, he serves as a heli-ski guide. That means he spends a lot of time chasing untouched snow and thinking about avalanches.

Anthony is mulling the hazards of the backcounty now more than ever. He is a regular on the East Vail Chutes, where Tony Seibert, a 10th Mountain Division skier and the grandson of one of Vail’s founders, died in an avalanche this January. The day before Seibert died, Anthony was on the chutes. He deliberately avoided the line where Seibert broke off the 900-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep fracture that buried him on its way down the mountain.

“They go out there with the ‘I want to live more’ mentality,” explains Anthony, who has himself survived three avalanches. “But it’s important to keep in mind that we’re kids in someone else’s playground. It’s like the first time you’re a little kid going to the beach. You’re from Kansas and you’ve never seen the ocean, so you go running out into the waves and the ocean just flattens you. We don’t go throwing ourselves into avalanches.”

Here are Anthony’s rules for skiers who want to go out of bounds while also staying safe:

1. Remember that skill won’t keep you safe.

“Skiing ability doesn’t have anything to do with knowing the terrain,” says Anthony. “You can be the most talented, world-class skier there is, but you need to read the environment. It’s like learning a completely different sport . . . but there is no exact science to it.”

2. Carry appropriate gear and know how to use it. 

“Make a vacation out of it and go take a four-day avalanche class out in the field,” Anthony recommends. He is a strong supporter of the programs offered by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which are designed for serious and intermediate skiers.

3. Ski with friends and talk it out.

“Make sure you’re comfortable with the people you’re with,” suggests Anthony. “Have an exit plan should things go wrong. Ask yourselves, ‘What do we do if . . . ?’ and start from worse-case scenario and work your way backwards. It will make you rethink what you’re doing.”

4. Take a moment and look around.

“Sometimes you’re so caught up in the moment and thrilled to get going you don’t look around,” says Anthony. “Even when I’m guiding, especially in Alaska, it’s hard to remember everything. It’s hard to look up and see what’s hanging above me. There might be a cornice two miles away that is getting wind-loaded. You’ve really got to take everything into account.”

5. If you see something, say something.

“It’s something called ‘group think’ and it can be dangerous, especially when you have multiple characters that are type A,” Anthony says of backcountry skiing’s number one hazard. Nobody wants to be the one asking the hard questions. Nobody wants to be the buzzkill. You can relinquish your common sense to that.”

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