To stay safe, all older skiers should prepare themselves for what might go wrong. I call this a “safety mindset,” and it’s kept me safe in more than 40- years of rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing.

Part of that preparation is answering these questions: 

  • What should I wear to protect myself?
  • How will I be found?
  • What are the most common dangers and how can I survive them?
  • What skills/knowledge/training do I need?

What should I wear to protect myself?

Wear a helmet and make sure it is securely fastenedIf your helmet isn’t adjusted properly and snugly attached it might not do much good. I check the helmet strap frequently. About half the time it needs adjustment. If you’re using an old helmet or one with a damaged shell, replace it with one of the modern impact distributing technologies like MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System).

How will I be found?

When skiing I always carry a Fox 40 whistle. If you’re skiing inbounds, a series of three loud whistle blasts will summon help. Your phone, also is useful, assuming there’s a signal and juice. Make sure 1) it’s fully charged at the start of the day, 2) the area’s number is in your “Contacts”, and 3) you have a GPS app that will give your coordinates for when you call patrol. To keep the battery from draining, I keep my phone warm on a neck lanyard between base layer and mid-layer fleece. 

Several ski clothing companies incorporate RECCO reflectors into their products. It can help rescuers find you. If RECCO is not built in to your parka or pants, Marmot makes a RECCO belt.

I also carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Mine is a McMurdo FastFind 220. About the size of a pack of cigarettes, it cost a couple of hundred bucks, is waterproof, requires no annual fee, and has a 6-year battery life. It gets registered with NOAA and, when activated, broadcasts a signal to the same rescue network used when commercial planes crash. It’s not to be used frivolously, but when it is, rescue will be on its way.


What are the most common dangers and how can I survive them?

In addition to avoid being hit by others or losing control, I try to avoid tree wells and avalanches; just a few of conditions that can lead to suffocation and/or hypothermia.

When skiing powder in the trees, I wear a Black Diamond AvaLung Sling. If I were stuck in a tree well, it would help me extract air from the surrounding snowpack and divert exhaled CO2 away from my head. It costs $130 and weighs 9 ounces. 

Hypothermia occurs more frequently in seniors and twice as often in men. When it’s cold the body reduces blood flow to the extremities in order to keep sending it to the brain and key organs. I use glove warmers and boot cozies to keep hands and feet warm.

Helmets help prevent heat loss from the scalp but if there’s exposed skin on your neck, body heat will be lost there. Neck gaitors are a good preventative.

What skills/knowledge/training do I need?

The answer to that question depends on your level of on-snow engagement. If you’re a resort skier, knowing and following the responsible skier’s code and being hypersensitive at trail intersections and to the people around you may be sufficient. A step up would be basic first aid and CPR training. If you’re spending time in the backcountry, take a Wilderness First Aid course (REI offers several 2-day courses) and investigate educational offerings from the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education

One Comment

  1. Richard Kavey says:

    Bob, Excellent advice! Tree wells are a risk not as well known as avalanche. They are just as deadly. In the east, the snowfall is insufficient to make them they are in the west and especially ranges like The Monashees, Gothics, Selkirks and Purcells. Us Easterners who head west should be state and treat tree wells with the respect they deserve. I had the pleasure to ski with the inventor of the Avalung before he sold the patent. Potentially life saving an the current generation much less restrictive than the original. An avalanche airbag is also a great development. Aids to keeping you on top during a slide. Recently developed airbags are being used by many World Cup skiers. These inflate during a fall or impact. Don’t believe they are available yet to recreational skiers but think they could be helpful. Most of my skiing these days is on a small mountain in central N.Y. The greatest risk here is SCUDS – skiers causing ultimate destruction by skiing far faster than their ability and skill permits. An with extremely poor judgement. There is no serious effort to control this menace and the ultimate irony is that I was almost hit by a ski patroller while I was standing several feet from the woods while coaching a group of young ski racers. I am most unimpressed by the skill level of members of the NSP – National Ski Patrol and very impressed by the professional patrollers I’ve known an befriended at Snowbird. Totally different animals, like comparing a mountain lion to an earthworm. ⛷

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