Live To Ride Another Day - Backcountry Preparedness
Winter is barely underway. Yet, we’ve already heard about inbounds avalanches and long line helicopter rescues on backcountry routes. So many of these instances can be avoided, if people were only better prepared. Being prepared is actually pretty easy. So, think about what you need to have a successfull backcountry mission, without being a stastic.
First and foremost is education. #knowbeforeyougo is of the utmost importance. Learn the basics and develop from there. In fact, education is a continuous effort. There are so many available resources to be educated in backcountry safety. Only a fool would go out uninformed.
Second, is to purchase and learn how to use the proper gear essential for backcountry travel. Buy quality products, as if your life depends upon it. As they say, expect the best, but prepare for the worst.
Third, find the best partners available and make sure that everyone on the team comes back alive. This is probably one of the most important decisions you will make and it may even impact some of your friendships. A friendship is never worth a life. Even if that means a solo mission, then so be it. It may be better to go alone and make smart decisions, so that you can live to ride another day.
The amount of resources available is overwhelming. When I first got into exploring the backcountry, there were only a few books out there. Most of our education was from trial and error. Or, it was passed down via word of mouth. These days, resorts have even gotten into the backcountry education game. Plus, many mountain area colleges offer backcountry education classes. Over the years, I’ve read books, attended classes, and have tapped into the overwhelming online world to gain the proper education to explore beyond the resorts and into the backcountry.
One book which helped me learn about navigating through the mountains is - Mountaineering: The Freedom Of The Hills (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1680510045/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_UrNgCbYF50J49). This was my first introduction into high alpine education. I studied this book cover to cover and spent many days and nights perusing the pages. I knew that any adventure into the hills mandated the skills necessary for self extraction. I learned how to get out, explore, and get back alive. This was well before the modern conveniences of cell phones, PLBs, or any other lifeline that exists these days. Take it upon yourself to gain the education to always live to ride another day.
Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1680511386/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_NvNgCb502S27N) is another book that has been very useful. Much of the previous book focused on climbing techniques, glacier travel through crevasses, and other high alpine scenarios. This book focuses on more common scenarios like terrain traps, snow conditions, and situations that are more common for the backcountry skier or snowboarder. This book focuses on the real world experiences of Bruce Tremper’s life at Bridger Bowl, Big Sky, Alaska Avalanche Center, and the Utah Avalanche Center. There’s a lifetime of real world information that is summed up for the reader in this book. This should be on any future backcountry explorer’s reading list.
Much of the education available is also available through classroom and hands on education. These days, there are so many great classes available. Personally, I chose to follow the AIARE (https://avtraining.org/) courses. The AIARE, or American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, courses start with a broad introduction, then progress to a more scientific focus, until they conclude with preparing backcountry guides and future educators. The AIARE 1 class is almost a “scared straight” introduction which reminds you that almost all of the fun terrain we like to ride also has the potential to kill us. These classes move beyond the classroom and teach the students real world, hands on techniques for navigating terrain, studying the snow conditions with pit data, and also how to properly use a beacon/shovel/probe in the event of an emergency. These classes are offered all around Lake Tahoe through Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe Community College, Alpenglow Expeditions, Alpine Skills International, North American Ski Training Center, Backcountry Babes, Tahoe Mountain School, West Wind Collective, and Kirkwood Mountain Resort. I chose to take my classes at Kirkwood through Expedition Kirkwood. After all, that was my mountain playground and home mountain. What better place to get educated?
Education is more than just classes, reading, etc. Education also means staying up to date of any changes in the backcountry. My local resource is https://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/. Every morning I check the weather and I check to see what the daily avalanche forecast is telling me. This information is crucial to planning my backcountry tour. I want to know which aspect looks most promising. I want to know the total snow depth. I want to know the historical data so I’m aware of any persistent weak layers. And, I want the firsthand, frontline, experience to help guide me and shape my decisions. That education is something that I really need to heed.
Education is more than a one and done process. It should be ongoing and continuous. Don’t let your experience make you become complacent. Complacency leads to mistakes. And, mistakes are often fatal in the backcountry.
Equipment is only good if you know how to use it. That’s why equipment is listed after education. Everybody has their own personal preferences as to what exactly to bring. One person may be preferential to a puffy, while another may like a fleece. We can classify some of this as general equipment with personal bias. As for specifics, there are a few mandatory pieces that everyone should have for any backcountry adventure. Those will be a lot more particular. If anyone has any questions regarding this list, then please feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s a list of what is usually in my backcountry kit:
* Backpack/Tactical Vest
* Lip Balm
* Medical Kit
* Climbing Skins
* Adjustable Poles (Whippet)
* Gorilla/Duct Tape
* Ski Straps x 2
* Credit Card/Cash
* Phone With Battery Backup
* Bivy Sack/Emergency Blanket
* Waterproof/Breathable Shell
* Waterproof/Breathable Pants
* Base Layers
* Goggles With Case/Bag
* Lens Cloth
* Insulation Layer
* Lightweight Gloves
* Heavier Gloves
Everybody has their own personal preferences when it comes to gear. A puffy can be a great, lightweight, insulating layer. But, it won’t necessarily work well when wet. Fleece is nice, but it’s bulky and takes up a lot of space. Cotton is a killer. Leave that for the summer activities. Socks are worth the investment. Unhappy feet make for an excruciating experience.
Some of the latest advances in technology have given us some great gear that is designed for high energy output, cold weather, adventures. Find what works best for you. But, find out before you commit to an epic outing. That’s rarely the best time to test out new gear.
The thing to remember about equipment is that the most valuable piece of equipment doesn’t do any good sitting at home. Many people end up spending nights in the backcountry because of a route finding error, a gear malfunction, or an injury. But, if you’re prepared for these scenarios, then you should be able to make it back without a hitch.
My backcountry list of partners is pretty small. As a guide, I often have to make concessions going with someone that might not be up to the challenge of a rescue. So, when it’s time for me to get out there for a fun adventure, then I’d like to avoid any potential hiccups. That’s not to say I only pick experts as my partners. Sometimes “experts” are just lucky individuals that have never been truly tested in the wild.
One thing I look for in a partner is humility. I really don’t want the over-confident bravado that will probably get us into trouble. I hope that they’ve prepared themselves with education, but that they also know their own limitations. They should respect the mountains and be fully aware of what the mountains can be capable of.
Another thing I appreciate is someone that is cool-headed. A hot-headed person will most likely make poor decisions and lose it when they’re most needed. Keep a cool head and make rational decisions. Don’t let emotions cloud good judgement.
Organization is also at the top of my list. If a partner can’t find their gloves or their skins, then you can be pretty sure that their pack is probably missing a crucial piece of gear. It’s better to find out now and abort, than to find out in the middle of an energency.
Lastly, and possibly most important, is reliability. We all have responsibilities in life. So, I need someone that can be reliable. My schedule can get pretty tight with work, family, and so much more. If we agree to go at 7:30am on Monday, I expect to be going at 7:30am on Monday. Don’t leave me waiting until you show up at 9.
Live To Ride Another Day
Good Education, Reliable Equipment, and Solid Partners can help make your backcountry experience an experience to remember. Nobody wants to be a statistic. But, every day we learn about more and more people that are reluctant victims in the backcountry. Nothing can make us bulletproof. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”.
Now, I hope to see each of you at the next Sierra Avalanche Center fundraiser, your local Know Before You Go gathering, the next AIARE course, then I hope you find your own happy place in the backcountry. I have mine and I don’t always like to share.
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