Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Terrain Choices

I spend about 80 days a year backcountry skiing - not slack-country skiing, not resort skiing, all 80 plus days are spent solely in the backcountry, almost all of it in infrequently traveled areas where relying on skier compaction of problem layers in the snowpack is just not an (viable) option. I figure that exposure alone increases the likelihood of being caught in an avalanche, and, truthfully, I've triggered more avalanches than I care (or can) count. So far, I've been lucky and avoided any serious injury - and obviously death - but it means that now, after 20 years of playing this game, I don't look at a single slope without thinking "what will happen if this slides?" As a corollary to that thought, the next thing I think is "can I avoid this slope or minimize my exposure?"

Don't get me wrong, I ski slide paths all the time. As we all know, slide paths make great skiing - angles over 30 degrees and frequently denuded of timber, but, it's one thing to ski down a slide path, and quite another to build an uptrack through the belly of one. There are all kinds of measures you can take to decrease your risk when skiing down a slide path - the most obvious being to expose one person at a time - while switchbacking up a slide path almost inevitably exposes multiple (slow moving) people at a time. Try skiing out of a slide with your skins on - ain't gonna happen.

On a recent ski tour to a local summit, I skied the entire route exposing myself to only one very small area of avalanche terrain - everything else I easily avoided. The rest of my party increased their exposure radically. In the first instance, switchbacking up directly under a slide path that had the sun beating on it with everyone on the slope at the same time, and, in the second, choosing to descend a steep, thin, rocky, shady slope. Neither of these options were necessary, and neither increased the value of the tour - certainly not enough to risk losing your life for. A day later, ski touring in a slightly different area, I came upon an uptrack that switchbacked up a narrow tight gully with big overhead hazard. A classic terrain trap that now had about 15 switchback turns in it. Two hundred metres to the north, was wide, low angle, timbered slope that provided a completely safe route to the same destination.

The key points are undoubtedly clear - look up when breaking trail. If you are directly in a slide path, even a small one, and you can easily avoid it, do so. Do so especially when the sun is beating on the start zone up above you or the wind is rapidly loading it. Do so, even if avoiding it takes a little extra time. Secondly, if you want to ski some nice powder on a shady slope, don't descend where the snowpack is thin and rocky - this is the classic location for triggering slabs on basal facets. Choose instead to descend where the snowpack is fat and healthy. Thirdly, look at the map, look at the terrain, then make a considered decision on where your uptrack should go. The shape and tightness of the contours will tell you where you can find a safe location for an uptrack.

For more tips on managing terrain, read this article by Karl Klassen. Is it a coincidence that we think alike?

 Skier Accidental triggered from an uptrack at the head of Lost Creek

Monday, February 14, 2011

On Backcountry Skiing In Big Groups

My preferred group size for ski touring is two to three people, which I will reasonably stretch to four. Beyond four, I become increasingly uncomfortable, and when the group size hits five or more, my discomfort level increases such that my decisions are increasingly driven by group size alone regardless of snow stability.

On a recent ski week at the Kokanee Glacier Cabin, our group size varied between 5 and 6 people each day, well over my maximum number for skiing bliss. Accordingly, most of my decisions on where to ski were based on what was manageable with a large and not necessarily particularly savvy group of skiers.

There's lots of data out there to suggest that big groups mean big headaches in the backcountry, but you don't need to read a bunch of scientific articles to recognize the problems that come with big groups, particularly big groups traveling in avalanche terrain. Below are my top ten reasons not to ski in big groups:

  1. Skiing one at a time (whether up, down or traversing) becomes incredibly time consuming. One five minute section that requires exposing only one person at a time to the slope will take a full 30 minutes to climb, cross or descend.
  2. Because of the time to taken to ski one at a time, most groups will not do this, thus exposing more than one person at a time to hazard.
  3. The likelihood of multiple burials in the event of an avalanche increases.
  4. When descending, people will spread out across the slope much more widely in a big group than a small group, possibly into avalanche terrain.
  5. More people on the slope means more trigger points to hit and increasing the likelihood of triggering an avalanche.
  6. Almost inevitably, someone will end up skiing down a slope on top of someone else.
  7. Discrepancies in ability, fitness and motivation are more likely to occur in big groups.
  8. Decision making begins to consume more and more time.
  9. Communication becomes increasingly difficult.
  10. It is well nigh impossible to ensure that everyone in the group knows and agrees with the plan.
  11. Travel becomes slow and inefficient.

I know that's 11 reasons not 10, but, it's hard to stop at 10 when thinking about reasons NOT ski in big groups. I could continue the list to 20 easily, and that would be a big group.

This Group Is Way Too Big

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sled Enabled Sloth

Doug and I have just returned from a couple of nights at the Huckleberry Hut in the Bonnington Range. Times have sure changed since our first visit to the tiny old miners hut almost 10 years ago. Back then, the area was quiet, and, on almost all our trips we were the only people in this southern end of the Bonnington Range. Now, the area is busy with heli-skiers from nearby Snowwater Lodge and the inevitable "sled assisted tourers", who are, in reality, anything but.

We came to call these sled assisted tourers Sled Enabled Sloths or SES's for short. Their practice is to drive sleds to the top of Cabin Peak, and then, while two or three (depending on party size) ski down the SE face of Cabin Peak to the road (near 1600 metres), a third or fourth sledder drives back down to pick them up. And, in this way, they shuttle back and forth never actually doing any touring. In fact, I came to wonder if they even had skins. The whole practice seemed incredibly inefficient, Doug and I, skiing in from the road with overnight packs, did more vertical than the SES's.

Not only is the practice inefficient, but it seems to go against the very grain of ski touring, which is to experience the freedom of traveling over and across the backcountry without constraint. While Doug and I were free to search out untracked powder and good snow - of which there was plenty - the SES's were chained to one slope, which, ironically, had the worst snow in the area. There is a price for everything, and clearly there is a price for being chained to a machine, and, I came to wonder, if the SES's had any idea what they were giving up for a few measly metres of unearned turns.

In the end, to ski is to travel fast and free - free over the untouched snow covered country. Hans Gmoser.

 Doug on a summit in the Bonnington Range