Tips for traveling in avalanche terrain

Is it safe? Should I ski it? Or do I go back?

If you backcountry ski, at some point you’ll ask yourself those questions. In many situations, they can be difficult to answer. In the end, it’ll come down to how you manage risk.

Define risk and learn how to mitigate it

Where do I go now? | Photo Brodie Kueber
Uh-oh. Perhaps I went the wrong way. Photo: Courtesy of Brodie Kueber
Risk is the chance of success against the cost of loss. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate risk, we can lower it through good decision-making and experience.

Take an avalanche course, such as Avalanche Safety Training 1 or 2. Both courses go over traveling safely in avalanche terrain, taking necessary precautions and how to use the proper equipment if the worst were to happen.

RELATED: What really happens beyond the ski area boundary

Travel with people more experienced than you so you can learn and make better decisions in the future.

Mine available data

The signs aren't always this obvious. Educate thyself. Photo: Courtesy of Nicolas Cool/Unsplash
The signs aren’t always this obvious. Educate thyself. Photo: Courtesy of Nicolas Cool/Unsplash
Collect as much information about the snowpack and stability as possible before heading out. Avalanche Canada, which collects snow-stability data from professionals throughout Canada, is a great resource.

Even we, Last Frontier Heliskiing, send them our snowpack information so they can compile all reports together and release an avalanche bulletin. Thus, the public can be better informed and make safer decisions.

Keep track of the snowpack during the entire season, taking note of weak layers that become a concern. Stability is about layering and load. Hot, cold, rain and snow crystals all affect it.

Pay attention to natural signs around you

Doing a tap test to check snow stability and see where the weak layers are and how much force is required to have them fail | Photo Liam Harrap
Doing a tap test to check snow stability, see where the weak layers are and determine how much force is required to make them fail. Photo: Courtesy of Liam Harrap
Pay attention to signs on the ski up-track, like the snowpack collapsing with a “whoomph” noise (indicating instability, as it hasn’t settled yet), sloughing between zigzags and signs of natural or human avalanches.

Good route-finding and navigation is important. Look at the weather forecast to see how the day is shaping up and whether to expect any storms, which may also affect stability or route finding.

When in doubt, turn back

Weather is an important consideration when trying to mitigate risk | Photo Liam Harrap
Trying to navigate in a storm can be risky business. Photo: Courtesy of Liam Harrap
Snow science is full of uncertainty and is a game of testing and waiting. When something goes wrong, learn from it.

It’s important to voice your concerns, even if you’re not the most experienced. Your opinion matters.

If you are unfamiliar with a ski area, we recommend hiring a guide. If you’re already in the field, don’t hesitate to turn back if the confidence isn’t there. Ski safely, guys and girls!

— Liam Harrap

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