Community Agriculture Alliance: Stay safe in the backcountry
January 29, 2015
Have you ever considered exploring what is beyond the ski resort boundaries? If so, you are not alone.
The fastest growing trend in snow sports involves gaining uphill access into the backcountry. The resulting experience gives you a sense of accomplishment gained from "earning your turns."
Every year, more people venture through the ski area's backcountry gates and explore out-of-bounds pitches that are extreme, exhilarating and untracked. While terrain accessed from a lift-served area is considered by avid backcountry enthusiasts to be more "sidecountry" than backcountry, the same safety rules apply in both areas.
To safely enjoy the backcountry experience, one needs good safety equipment as well as understanding of the factors that cause avalanches and the capacity to read the terrain. While some people hastily ignore the backcountry's potential dangers in pursuit of fresh turns, I prefer a safer experience and to follow these simple rules:
• Rule 1: Treat backcountry skiing, and really all skiing, as a team sport. Don't enter the backcountry alone. Ski patrol may or may not be available to assist if needed and your chances of surviving an avalanche or close encounter with a tree well are much greater with a buddy. An equally (or better) trained backcountry buddy is ideal.
• Rule 2: Know where you are going. If you don't know, then don't go. Locals keep very quiet about their favorite backcountry lines. Don't be upset if they choose to safeguard their knowledge from those who might not be prepared for this area. It may be for your own safety.
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• Rule 3: Be avalanche aware. Learn as much as you can about avalanche safety. Avalanche awareness includes three categories: weather, snowpack and terrain. An intimate understanding of how these three aspects combine to create avalanches can mean the difference between life and death. Evaluating the subtleties that separate avalanche terrain from safe terrain falls somewhere between an art and a science and can take years, even decades, to fully grasp.
• Rule 4: Bring proper equipment. Good backcountry gear isn't cheap but there are tools you must have. Avalanche beacons are must, as are a probe & shovel. A "Slope Inclinometer" will help you determine average slope angle. It can be essential to deciding whether you are about to ski avalanche-prone terrain.
• Rule 5: Practice, practice, practice. Good gear provides for a safer experience, but it is only useful if you know how to use it. The local college and sports stores offer avalanche safety training that will help you learn how to use your gear.
• Rule 6: Check your local avalanche forecast daily. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is dedicated to keeping people safe in the backcountry. They have a 1 to 5 rating system for danger, and explain the dangers you might be facing that day in a way even a novice can understand.
• Rule 7: Always tell someone where you and your group are going and when to expect you back. This is a standard backcountry rule for all seasons.
As Benjamin Franklin said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This rings true for experiencing the backcountry and the many joys it can provide.
To learn more about "the human-powered experience" in the backcountry, join Yampatika and Friends of the Routt Backcountry for the annual Backcountry Film Festival on at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Chief Theater. Tickets are $20 per person, $10 for students with student I.D. Visit http://www.chieftheater.com to pre-purchase.
Jake Castle is a naturalist at Yampatika.