Section 03: Backcountry skiing hazards

3. Is backcountry skiing safe?

Provided that you

i. learn the skills that are needed, and

ii. choose ski routes that are appropriate

a. for your skill level, and

b. for the weather and avalanche conditions on that day, and

iii. exercise caution when you make decisions, then yes, backcountry skiing might be safe. Without these skills and without thoughtful decision making, backcountry skiing is not safe.


"Nature cannot be fooled." --Richard Phillips Feynman


Every year skiers of all abilities are killed. We cannot assure complete safety. You voluntarily partake of this activity by your choice. DO NOT FOOL YOURSELF.

The basic skills required for backcountry skiing can be learned in many ways. The possiblities include;

1) hiring a guide,

2) taking a course with one of the numerous schools (such as NOLS,
Outward Bound, etc...) that teach outdoor skills,

3) skiing with friends that are experienced backcountry skiers, or

4) taking a course at a college or university that offers outdoor education.

The following general rules of thumb for safety are parapharsed from Hanscom and Kelner's book Wasatch Tours. They should be exercised by all backcountry skiers, regardless of experience or ability.

a) Consider and prepare for the worst.

b) Consider the needs of your body for water, food and warmth.

c) Be aware of winter hazards such as weather and avalanches.

d) Travel with enough people to rescue or evacuate a person.

e) Tell someone where you are going, and when you will return.

(Editors note: Thanks to Eugene Miya for helping to clarify this section.)

3.1 How do I prepare for the weather and exposure?

Backcountry travel in the winter exposes the skier to potentially severe weather. Travelers should be prepared with enough gear and supplies to safely handle extreme cold, high winds, snow/ice and sudden severe weather changes. Backcountry travelers should also have plans for an emergency due to weather or injury, and should consider how they would survive the night if circumstances forced that upon them.

In the Fall of 1996, rsb had a discussion of what people carried with them on backcountry ski tours. The following lists are some of their suggestions. These are not exhaustive lists, and they don't include the obvious such as extra clothing and food, they are just what some people carry with them for emergencies. For a complete list of suggested gear you click here.

Andrew McLean

Headlamp - so you can keep going.
Lighter - so you can start a fire.
Space Blanket - can be made into a little shelter
Avy Shovel - for digging a snow cave

Lowell Skoog

Zadarsky tent - It is lighter, more compact, and more versatile than
a sleeping bag or bivi sack. You can put three people under one.

Steve Cali

Candle Lantern - They put out lots of warmth in a shelter
Grabber Chemical Hand Warmers - I carry about a half dozen


Snow saw - for making a snow shelter

3.2 What should I know about avalanches?

If you travel in avalanche prone terrain, you should know as much as you possibly can! The reasons why are obvious. In the 1995-96 ski season, avalanches killed 27 people in North America. These people ranged from backcountry novices to a professional ski patrolman working on avalanche control. The avalanches ranged from quite small slides with little power to slides that snapped 100+ year old trees like they were twigs.

3.2.1 Do I have to worry about avalanches?

Almost certainly, unless you're sticking to particularly flat terrain. Anywhere where snow accumulates on slopes may well be an avalanche risk, and as a backcountry skier, slopes where snow accumulates are just the sort of places you're likely to be.

However, there's a lot of difference between "worry " and "fear". If you make a point of learning about avalanches, as long as you have respect for them and use that knowledge, then you needn't be afraid of them, as you shouldn't end up in one.

3.2.2 What are the consequences of avalanches?

This varies from nothing to death, but you cannot assume anything about escape if you're in one. There is no sure way of escaping from an avalanche intact, except by not being caught in the first place, which is what you should concentrate on.

3.2.3 Are avalanches avoidable?

Yes, they are, but before you can reliably avoid an avalanche you need to have a reasonable understanding of what causes them and in what conditions you can expect them. Once armed with this knowledge you can make use of multiple sources of information, including maps, weather forecasts, visual and structural inspection and even "6th sense gut feelings" in order to avoid them. Note that nobody knows everything there is to know, so don't try and learn everything at once. Just like learning ski turns, if you build up gradually it's easy, but if you try and emulate Olympic slalom champions on your first run you'll come unstuck.

To get the information you need for this, look at Questions 4 & 5...

3.2.4 Where can I find out about avalanches?

There are plenty of good sources available, both general and local. For general sources, widely available, see Question 5.

Local sources are primarily people-oriented, and represent local knowledge of conditions and tendencies in an area. It is well worth seeking out such information in advance, as it can reveal persistent black spots and good avoidance routes. Areas may publish local avalanche forecasts, which should always be read if available, along with local weather forecasts. If specific mountain forecasts are available, make sure you read them. Make a point of asking other backcountry users in the area their opinions if you feel there is possible danger: the more information you have, the better you can forecast and avoid activity.

In mountain areas there are often avalanche professionals who will gladly spend time on lectures to interested groups. If this facility is available, make use of it. Find out if an area has an avalanche service and contact it if it does for information and guidance. Nobody knows all there is about avalanches, and the more information you have, the better your chances of avoiding them.

3.2.5 What resources are widely available?

Numerous courses on avalanches and safe backcountry travel are available, and if you are planning backcountry travel, you should take a course. For a list of courses see

Aside from an avalanche course, the groundwork theory is easiest to pick up by videos or reading, either books or Web sites. Following is a list of various of each.


o Avalanche Awareness: A Question of Balance

o Winning the Avalanche Game

o Not a Second to Waste

o Avalanche Rescue Beacons, a Race Against Time


o Avalanche Safety for Climbers and Skiers, Daffern

o The Avalanche Book, Armstrong & Williams

o Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard, Fredston & Fesler

o Mountaincraft & Leadership, Langmuir

o A Chance in a Million?, Barton & Wright

o The Snowy Torrents: Avalanche Accidents in the United States 1980-86. Nick Logan and Dale Atkins.

o Ski Safe, Sellar

Web sites:

o Cyberspace Snow and Avalanche Center

o Westwide Avalanche Network

3.2.6 Am I safe with a beacon, probe and shovel?

Don't rely on it. The only sure way of being safe is not to get caught. Probes and shovels are for getting other people out, not you. Beacons (radio transceivers for locating buried victims) can be a big help, but they require PRACTICE in their use and though certainly a good idea that could save your life they are not a substitute for avoidance. Don't let safety items like these lull you into a false sense of security by reducing your respect for avalanches.

3.2.7 Do I need to practice forecast and avoidance?

Yes. And preferably practice some more afterwards...

3.2.8 Is there anything else I can do?

Yes, most avid backcountry skiers in areas with local sources of avalanche prediction will listen to or read their local report on a daily basis, even if they don't plan to ski on that day. By maintaining an avalanche log, either written or mental, you learn about the history of the snow, its current conditions, and future expectations. The lessons learned by season after season of studying the snow will allow you to increase your enjoyment of the mountains.

3.2.9 Is there anything else I can do in the mountains?

The following observations can usually be made without risk and suggest when an avalanche is possible.

1. Has there been recent avalanche activity on this slope or another slope similar to it?

2. Have there been recent deposits of snow by wind or precipitation? If its spring, is the slushy snow deeper than the top of your boot?

3. Does the angle of this slope exceed 25 degrees anywhere? Including the slope above and below?

4. Are there signs of any past avalanche activity on this slope? Are there any trees, do the trees have uphill branches, are there any gullys with no trees?

If the answer to ALL these questions is no, then a slide on that slope is unlikely but not impossible. If the answer to ANY of these questions is yes, then an avalanche could occur.

3.2.10 Is there a place that I can get beacons at cost?

Yes. Its called the EKW fund.

Erdme Kuljurgis-Worswick's tragic death in an avalanche in the spring of 1984 alerted the communities of Southwest Colorado to the lack of information available on the subject of winter mountaineering and backcountry travel. Erdme perished in a small avalanche while cross country skiing on relatively non-threatening ground in the San Juan Mountains. Shortly after Erdme's death, the EKW Memorial Mountain Safety Fund, a non-profit educational organization, was created to increase public awareness of avalanches and their potential hazards in the backcountry. Dissemination of information that might prevent injuries and death has always been the primary purpose of the fund. Through donations and fund-raising activities, the EKW Fund is now able to provide free avalanche seminars in southwest Colorado. The avalanche safety seminars focus on avoiding potentially dangerous situations. Free emergency first aid seminars involving cold weather medical problems are also offered. An important aspect of safe winter backcountry travel is safety gear. The Fund determined that the possession and trained use of avalanche rescue equipment was also vitally important to backcountry safety. Avalanche rescue transceivers, collapsable shovels, and ski pole probes are well-known as the basic safety gear for backcountry travel. The EKW Fund makes transceivers and shovels available at wholesale cost to the communities in Colorado. This outfits many who may not be able to afford the necessary equipment with important safety devices needed for safe travel on avalanche terrain. The EKW Fund continues to grow each year, thanks to donations of time and money from concerned people. Contributions take many forms. And each little bit counts to help save maybe another life. Spread the word. The more people who know about the fund, the stronger its message will become.

The EKW Fund
P. O. Box 300
Ridgway, Colorado 81432

<< Editors Note: This is a non-profit service provided by the the friends and family of EKW. PLEASE treat these people with the respect and kindness they richly deserve. Furthermore, if you can afford it, please add a donation to the fund with your purchase. >>

3.2.11 Induction line searches.

Your tranceiver works by inductively coupling to the magnetic field created by the transmitting unit. The magnetic field is very directional, radiating from one end of the tranmitting antenna to the other. The basic idea is that you follow the path of one of the magnetic induction lines drawn in the figure on the right.

For this reason, you will get a stronger signal when your receiver is oriented parallel to the induction line from the tranmitter (you should already have experienced this during your practices...when you orient the receiver for maximum signal you are orienting along the induction line). Note that quite often the orientation for maximum signal does *not* result in the reciever pointing at the tranmitter.

Nonetheless, in an induction line search you align your receiver for maximum signal strength and then proceed in the direction that your receiver is pointing. If the signal strength diminishes you turn 180 degrees and proceed. The signal strength should increase as normal. As you proceed you *constantly* reorient your receiver for maximum signal strength and move in the resulting direction.

The result is that you will end up following a curved path that will lead you to the transmitter. Once you get close you will nead to resort to a normal grid search, however by this time you should be on the most sensitive range and therefore the grid is very small.

Properly done the inductive search can be very rapid (less moving back and forth) even though the path to the victim is not a straight line. However this method requires more practice to be effective.

The induction line method should be replaced by a classical grid search when you are within 2 meters of the victim. Near the victim, the direction of the induction lines change substantially over small distances, making this method of search confusing.

Thanks to Glen Baker for this description.

3.3 Is it ok to ski by myself?

Solo backcountry skiing is generally not recommended due to weather and avalanche hazards, and the possibility of injury. After having stated the obvious, solo backcountry skiing can be an enormously rewarding experience, but it involves risks that cannot be taken lightly.

3.4 What's the injury rate for telemark skiing?

Michael Tuggy has conducted a survey of telemark injuries over the past several years. To see the results click here. An interesting conclusion of the survey is that skiers with plastic boots sustain fewer serious knee injuries than skiers leather boots.

On to Section 4: What type of skis do I need?

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