It’s Socially Distanced For Sure. And Could Be Dangerous.

If you go under the rope, you have to know what you are doing. Credit: Tamsin Venn

The number of skiers and split boarders heading into the backcountry is skyrocketing as we search for ways to avoid ski areas’ confusing restrictions on lift capacity and parking plus social distance. Sales of skis, boots, skins, probes, and shovels are up (137 percent in the past three years). Trailheads are packed.

Those in the search and rescue fields are understandably concerned about our—and their—well being.

In-person avalanche safety courses, the norm, are full with waiting lists. The good news is that there is a ton of great online free education content out there. That could be a good entry point for those of us wanting to give skinning and skiing a try, now that gear, clothing, and navigation technology have improved so much.

BRASS Foundation offers a 90-minute intro webinair from certified avalanche safety instructors. It includes a harrowing 13-minute video Off Piste about two up-and-coming U.S. Ski Team members Ronnie Berlack, 21, and Bryce Astle, 20, killed in an avalanche in Soelden, Austria, when caught in a massive slide in January 2015. Ronnie’s Dad Steve Berlack spearheaded BRASS to raise awareness about what he felt was a preventable accident with the right knowledge.

The Utah Avalanche Center created Know Before You Go (KBYG), a free hour-long online course with five simple modules: Get the Gear, Get the Training, Get the Forecast, and while out in the snow, Get the Picture, Get Out of Harm’s Way. UAC Director Mark Staples says once out there you are your own avalanche forecaster and first aid provider. “You gotta take the classes,” he says.

The legacy of heli-skiing operations in the Canadian Rockies has generated much online guidance. Matthew Smith, a Whistler ski patroller and flight paramedic, stresses four things to do to prep: Take an avalanche safety course. Take a wilderness first aid course for your specific activity from a professional with real-world paramedic experience. Learn technical knowledge such as weather and gear. Practice Leave No Trace.

Avalanche Canada posts weather and avalanche reports and offers a free intro online tutorial. AC is partially funded by federal funds. Prime minister Justin Trudeau’s younger brother Michel Trudeau died in an avalanche in 1998 in British Columbia.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Avalanche Assn. supports guides with professional training and info exchange but also offers recreational courses for non-guides.

Across the U.S., find help from two dozen regional avalanche forecast centers that provide “geo-targeted” reports on snow conditions through local authorities and U.S. Forest experts.

Recognizing the rise in backcountry sales, Nick Sargent, president and CEO of Snowsports Industries America (SIA) points out that SIA now provides a “one-stop shop” of resources for backcountry safety.

The American Avalanche Institute offers an avalanche fundamentals course (cost $30) covering all the basics.

Mark Smiley’s Mountain Sense has produced “A Comprehensive Guide to Avalanche Safety” (cost $249) available online. Smiley is a Certified Mountain Guide with the Swiss-based IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations).

“Take the risks but get the training,” sums up patroller Matt Smith.



One Comment

  1. Alan S Cort says:

    It’s simply not enough to assume if you head into the backcountry with an experienced partner that you’ll be fine, and not need training. What if they are the one to get caught in an avalanche – and you stand there frantic and helpless while they die? Take the training. Practice what you learn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *