By Anna Keeling
A couple of years ago I was teaching a snow safety class at Mt Cheeseman. Constant snow flurries, low visibility and wind kept us inbounds on day one. On day two, after the upper Cheeseman slopes had been controlled and opened by a hardworking 3-member Ski Patrol, my group headed into Tarn basin.
We linked the lower angle pitches to the very bottom of Tarn and had 500 metres of first tracks - superb, low risk, boot-top plus powder skiing. We spread out for the section that rides through the runout of the Tarn chutes. As the group skinned back up the basin (again spread out for the exposed section), a pair of skiers dropped together into the Tarn chutes (approaching 40 degrees steep at the top). I felt troubled by this - dropping in at the same time seemed unnecessarily risky. If they had both been avalanched (it was within 24 hours of the snow fall - the time when snow is most unstable), we would have to make the difficult decision whether to go to help. My group, many of whom were in the backcountry for the first time, would be exposed to steep nearby slopes which could also avalanche. The so-called Slack country is not that slack. As soon as you leave the ski area boundary, it’s backcountry. Ski Patrol are often too busy to be able to respond to a backcountry accident, especially if it’s a powder day. Time is essential. No-one breathes for long under snow. It’ll be up there with the scariest thing you’ve ever had happen. I know: I’ve been there.
I feel like I see this often in New Zealand - people dropping wherever they feel like it in the backcountry, regardless of whether others are beneath them. Even wilder are all the times I’ve seen folks skinning back up the 35 degree ski lines while riders drop in around them. In other busy touring areas, you’d be given grief for this. It ties into manners but it’s really about risk management. Although spreading out in avalanche terrain is not necessary every single day on every single run, it’s a good habit to develop. Even when avalanche hazard is low, best practice is to at least verbalise the spacing plan among team members and assign regroup spots that are (as much as possible) away from avalanche runouts. The real trick comes into play when it’s unpredictable. I’ve had many friends get caught out by avalanches in an otherwise stable snowpack. Often an anomaly gets them - a small unexpected windslab carries the victim over a cliff or a wet slide knocks you off your feet and buries you in a drainage. This “spatial variability” - the idea that weak snow layers are variable from location to location, can be a frustrating concept. The only mitigation method is to avoid having too many people exposed at once on avalanche-prone slopes (slopes approaching and above 35 degrees). Set yourself up for someone to be available to help. The avalanche question already involves a complex interplay of factors: Is the slope steep enough to avalanche? What aspect is the slope in relation to wind and sun? What elevation is the slope and how does that affect the snow? What shape is the slope? Does it have steep rollovers? Shallow rocky areas? How is the weather affecting the snow? Add in ourselves with our odd habits and urges and ask: What happens if an avalanche occurs? Will the slide be big or small? Could you be buried deep in a terrain trap, swept over a cliff, swept into a party below….? It’s about examining consequences and options.
Best practice is to ski an avalanche-prone slope separately, particularly if there are several other groups in the vicinity. How much space you allow between riders will depend on the likelihood of an avalanche vs the consequence if the slope does rip. Before you drop, talk to your partner/s and establish the island of safety you plan to regroup at. It may be a long way down (think Crystal valley off Porters) - which adds to risk management. If the first skier makes it safely and the second gets avalanched, the skier below will have to skin to the rescue. Islands of safety are higher points like knolls or ridges. When you arrive at that island, look around and ask yourself “Am I in the safest spot I could be given the conditions?” Agree on the distance between team members before dropping in. Avoid stopping part way down. As you drop, have an escape route in mind, should the slope go. This may be a nearby ridge, a big rock that you can duck under or a route back onto the ridge you left from. It’s wise for the first person to ski/snow board cut - high across the slope - to test it before committing to the drop.
Respect other riders and avoid dropping in on them until they’re at a safe spot. Avoid dropping in above people skinning. Skinners and booters - take the line that avoids being directly under slopes that folks are riding, even if these means going further or it means you lose the race for first tracks. Honestly, there are always more first tracks!
I’m keen to avoid a multi-casualty accident in popular and accessible areas like Tarn basin and Crystal Valley. Having a little self control and skiing/riding one at a time while identifying safe stopping areas is a healthy habit - whether it’s a stable day or not. You never know when you could get it wrong.
At the risk of sounding preachy, here’s a quick version of dos and don’ts with backcountry etiquette:
1. If the ski area is generous enough to sell a one-ride ticket, preserve that goodwill by only taking ONE RIDE! Don’t be the one who kills the privilege!
2. Know Before you Go: Check the Avalanche Advisory (avalanche.net.nz)
3. Be nice to the ski patrol as you exit and enter the ski area.
4. Exit through designated areas. Do not return to the ski area via closed areas (this message is to all you people exiting Porters - that full sliding fall down Bluff face is incredibly unpleasant to witness).
5. Be friendly to other travellers. We are all in it for a good time and we need to look after each other out there.
6. Avoid dropping in on others below
7. Avoid skinning up the down routes. Skin lower angle routes back to the ski area. Spread out where it’s exposed.
8. Ski/Ride out of potential avalanche path runouts as much as possible - aim for a safe regroup spot where you are not under others who are skiing/riding down.
9. If you see an avalanche or get weak test results, share that info to other BC travellers, ski patrol and send it to the local avalanche observer.
Images by Stu Waddel.