Steep Life Protocols: Be Realistic

Don’t let complacency and ignorance put you in avalanche-prone areas.
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The popularity of steep skiing, getting untouched powder, and backcountry skiing seems to be at an all-time high. But there’s still danger, and avalanches continue to claim lives due to a lack of terrain management.

We have to admit that the lack of backcountry protocols is a huge problem. Technology makes us superhuman in the mountains, and it’s getting easier to access avalanche terrain via ski lifts, trams, snow machines, snow cats, helicopters, and paved roads.

The majority of us are over confident with our safety equipment, knowing how to use it, and knowing how to dig snow pits, but the bottom line is safety equipment and snow pits are not preventing people from dying in avalanches.

Here’s why:

- Technology has evolved ski technique and produced better, more aggressive skiers, and it has enabled more skiers to access complex avalanche terrain in mid- and high-alpine regions.

- Resorts have opened vast inbounds terrain, and the entrance gates at resorts give skiers easier access to backcountry terrain.

- More skiers know how to dig snow pits and use safety equipment, and they believe that their safety equipment will save them, but trauma and asphyxiation cause the most injuries and deaths in avalanches.

- Not counting resorts, people have better, easier access to backcountry terrain.

- Backcountry popularity is high, and it’s said to be the fastest growing segment in winter sports.

We all need to realize that there's no such thing as a controlled environment in the mountains—whether that’s skiing inbounds at ski resorts, cross country skiing on groomed trails below avalanche terrain, riding snow machines, accessing federal or state lands, or even driving on mountain roads.

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It's not so much about knowing how to dig a snow pit or how to use safety equipment. It's more about knowing the safe places to spend your time in the mountains. In the mountains you're either standing in the wrong place or the right place.

Besides terrain, we’re dealing with a changing environment that has made storms more extreme, more difficult to predict, fluctuate more during storm cycles, and have broader temperature differences. Many people don’t realize that temperature swings affect the stability of the snow pack more than anything else.

Broad temperature differences break down the snow structure, and create facets within the snow pack and on the snow surface. Facets make the snow pack weak and less able to hold new snow or a skier.

Additionally, in the face of a changing climate, many mountains we access have multiple microclimates making it hard to rely on a broad forecast. So keep the following in mind:

- Sun crust, facets/surface hoar, and wind-deposited snow are major red flags.

- New snow accumulation adds weight and increases avalanche potential.

- Increasing temperature and rain can saturate the snow pack and increase avalanche potential by changing consolidated snow to unconsolidated snow.

- A thin graupel layer can act like ball bearings when a snow or wind slab forms on top.

- Wind slabs have tension that can release and spread under the weight of a skier.

Don't let your guard down or get mesmerized by fresh powder and steep slopes nor trust that your ability and safety equipment will save you. You have to implement terrain management policy to avoid avalanches.

Be safe. Skiing is life!

Dean Cummings is a professional big mountain skier and mountaineer, Alaska heli-ski pioneer, product engineer, award-winning outdoor educator, and World Extreme Skiing Champion.

Stay tuned as Cummings sheds light on various Steep Life Protocol topics throughout the winter.

(Photos from top: Josh Cooley, Eric Layton)

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