Backcountry Skiing Tips After Completing Avalanche Training

What to Do After Completing Avalanche 1 Training Course

After taking an Avalanche 1 training course, you may be feeling excited and nervous about really getting out there on your own.  I mean, let’s face it, even the experts get it wrong sometimes.  And after just one weekend of training, you will know tons more than you did, but there is no replacement for experience.  People are often still terrified to get out there.  So I want to help you figure out the steps you can take to stay safe in the backcountry skiing and build your avalanche assessment skills. And if you haven’t completed the Avalanche Level 1 Course – register here.

As Bruce Tremper’s chart above suggests, (from his book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, which I highly recommend) one’s confidence is really high when we have no idea of the risk, like many people who pop out of the gates from resorts into the backcountry with no gear.  Then when you get some training your confidence rises again.  With more experience, it goes up more, until you get burned with a close call or a friend dies, and your confidence dives.  We tend to ride an up and down wave, hopefully learning quickly as we go, and without too harsh of consequences.  Over time we learn to be more cautious, to really dig for information, to understand our human factors, to avoid overconfidence, and really understand risks at stake.

Luckily, we as an avalanche and backcountry community are learning more all the time.  We are learning more about how to assess avalanches. There is a lot of information being shared everyday, there are daily avalanche reports, shared observations, Weather forcasts and even social media.  All of these help us see the bigger picture.  More trainings are available to you so you can continue your learning of avalanches and how to make good decisions in the mountains.

10 Backcountry Skiing Tips After Completing Avalanche Training

1. Get out there in safe terrain and practice.

  • Find a few generally safer areas you can explore in and learn in
  • Dig pits – do your stability test (CT, ECT, ST) and share with the forecast center.
  • Look, Listen, and Feel in the snow.  While in the mountains you should constantly be aware of the clues.

Notice I said safe terrain!  That generally means 30 degrees and without bigger connected slopes.  Start  on Moderate or Low hazard days.

2. Go out with people more experienced than you..

  • You trust
  • Have a high safety standard
  • Share your risk tolerance or less
  • Takes time to explain things to you
  • Shows you what they are observing
  • Shares with you their thought process
  • Includes you in the planning
  • Are compatible with or okay with your fitness, skiing ability, and risk tolerance
  • Openly invite your questions
  • Are patient with you
  • Discusses the hazards, route plan, and concerns before beginning the tour
  • Conducts gear checks and beacon checks before hitting the trail

3. Read the Avalanche forecast every day, or study up on recent conditions/avalanches the night before.  Here is the link to the Utah Avalance Center. For all other areas in the USA, go here.

  • Reading the forecast daily will really help you further your knowledge about avalanches and avalanche terminology
  • You will increase your understanding of the current hazards, and learn what problems to look for
  • Knowing about recent avalanches tells you a lot about what slopes to avoid. Slopes sharing of similar elevation, angle and aspect often hold a similar snowpack
  • Weather is also part of the avalanche forecast. Knowing the forecast; Precip, temperature, and winds are key in forecasting avalanches.

4. Check the weather stations in your area for details on the winds, snow amounts, and temperatures.  In many areas you can access data from all the same weather stations NOAA uses. Find Stations in the Wasatch.  Observing data from stations similar in elevation and area to your planned outing is super valuable to planning a safe day.

5. Explore the backcountry with a professionally certified  AMGA or IFMGA  mountain guide for a handful of days. Sign-up for a guided ski trip adventure

  • Have them coach you in route planning, track setting, and avalanche assessment
  • Tell them you want to learn and ask them to share their knowledge
  • Ask them to show you some areas that you could go to on your own
  • Get involved in the planning with them so you can do some research on your own, then compare your plan/ideas with theirs
  • Practice safe track setting and get feedback from them
  • Dig in the snow to make your own assessments and see if it aligns with your guides thinking

Then, practice on your own for a bit in similar terrain.  When you want to do something riskier, hire them again, until you feel comfortable going on your own

    1. Go on your own when the risk is lower, and hire a guide when it is more dangerous.  Then you can learn a ton about where it is safe to go on Considerable Avalanche hazard for those conditions.
    2. Ask a lot of questions.  No matter who you go with, ask your questions.  Even if they are more experienced than you.  It can save your life and you will learn more.  There are no dumb questions.

6. Have your compass handy – measure slope aspect and angle a lot.  I keep my compass in the hip pocket of my backpack so I can use it quickly and easily.  I also use my phone sometimes.  The Pieps inclinometer that goes on your ski pole is super fast and easy.  Seriously, you should measure every slope before you ski it or go up it.  You should learn how to do this in your Avalanche 1 training course.

7. Listen to your own inner wisdom.  Don’t rely on others, or trust others if your gut instinct is speaking to you.  Speak up.  Stay calm so you can analyze things clearly.

8. Know your own weaknesses.  In your Avalanche safety course, you will learn about Human factors.  These are the things that get us in trouble in life and in the backcountry like:

  • Being afraid to speak up, following the crowd, herd instinct
  • Lion syndrome: trying to show off, getting so excited (boy has this caused me lots of pain and injuries, it always gets me in trouble), catch this one.
  • Horse running back to the barn (hurry to get home), Rushing – slow things way down, so you can think clearly and make a good decision, don’t rush anything, discuss things, sit still, and listen for a minute before going down.
  • Familiarity – I have skied here many times, there are many tracks already
  • These are just a few.

The important thing is to know what your patterns are, so you can recognize them in the backcountry.  Then you have the ability to make a choice, instead of automatically falling into a bad habit.  

So, do you know your weakness?  What are your patterns?  What gets you in trouble?  Check out this fun human factor video from the Utah Avalanche Center. 

  1. Shift out of a Stress Response – Stay Calm.  When we are in a stress response, the body prepares for fight or flight.  The survival brain kicks in, and we no longer have access to the creative brain.  We tend to act too quickly or freeze up.  So slow things way down in your mind, breath deep, soften the muscles in your face and shoulders and relax, and then use your tools from your Avalanche course to make an informed decision.  So whether you are about to ski down, setting a track uphill, or in a bad situation, you need to be able to keep your head about you.  To relax try these 3 steps:
  • Take 3 deep breaths and soften
  • Notice your thoughts and shift them.  ‘I am going to die’ – ‘At this moment, I am okay.’  Pick a better feeling thought.
  • Slow things way down in your mind.
  • Go through an avalanche safety checklist so you can make an informed decision.  Like ALPTRUTH by Ian McCammon.  I keep this list handy.
  1. Always practice safe travel!  If you have taken a course, you have heard this, but I have to stress it here.  It can save your life or your partner’s life for sure.  Here are things to remember:
  • Only one person should be exposed at a time on the way up or down.
  • Spread out if you have to traverse across or under a steep slope on the way up. Moving from safe zone to safe zone and ‘spotting’ each other.  ( avoid putting yourself in danger when you can)
  • Ski one at a time on the way down moving from safe spot to safe spot
  • Pick a safe spot to regroup at the bottom. (hint: If there are no trees, especially here in the Wasatch, then it is probably not out of the runout zone.)
  • Set a safe uptrack.  This is really an art and takes some practice to be good
  • Choose appropriate terrain for the conditions and your group

Now, I have poured some wisdom your way.  I hope you have gained some knowledge and clarity.  Undoubtedly, I wish you a safe fun season in the backcountry.  And reach out if you have questions for me.

By Winslow Passey

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