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

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