Steep Life Protocols: Prioritizing Risk

You need to know what you’re getting into when accessing the goods at resorts or in the backcountry.
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You need to know what you’re getting into when accessing the goods at resorts or in the backcountry.
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As more people access the backcountry and rowdy terrain at ski resorts, the number of backcountry accidents is rising. Overconfidence in safety equipment, a skier’s own ability, and certifications—plus a lack of continual adherence to backcountry protocols—is a recipe for disaster.

Prioritizing risks is a cornerstone of Steep Life Protocols, a terrain management system that increases a skier’s safety, because it's often the little risky dominoes that trigger life-changing accidents.

Steep Life Protocols aims to decrease risk, avoid avalanches, and make you a better, safer skier or snowboarder by assessing risk on-the-go from the top down, plus choosing the correct route. Its doctrine includes understanding that you can’t control snow pack. Read on for key protocols, how to identify terrain hazards, and the best way to chose your line.

Key backcountry protocols to help you prioritize risk and select daily terrain:

1) Be physically and mentally ready for your endeavors.

2) Monitor weather: How far and steep are you willing to go with a storm approaching? If someone gets injured and a storm moves in, avoiding hazards and avalanche terrain becomes difficult. Storms can quickly turn relatively safe avalanche conditions into dangerous conditions. Decide if it's a go or no-go. If it's a go, choose easy to moderate terrain. Even on short outings, keep safety nets (partners, ski patrol, vehicles) close with weather looming.

3) Travel with a team mentality: First, chose terrain based on the person in your group who has the lowest ability and what he or she can handle. Then, consider whether everyone contributing to managing risk. Did someone show up disorganized, tired, or out of shape? Is there an aggressive risk taker? Those two team members could cause problems, and poor team dynamics increases risk.

4) Select practical equipment: Is your pack appropriate for low center of gravity sports? Are your skis adequate for the snow conditions? Are your bindings durable enough and set correctly? The wrong equipment can force the group to break backcountry protocol by having multiple skiers on a slope looking for a lost ski, assisting an injured skier, or a host of other mishaps.

5) Evaluate surface snow conditions: How far and steep are you willing to go with difficult surface snow conditions (including firm snow) that could cause a slide-for-life onto objects below? Is it worth the risk?

6) Assess snow stability: Today's snow conditions help predict avalanches during future snow accumulation later in the season. Does the snow pack consistently support your weight? Does the snow feel like graphite when rubbed between your gloves? New snow doesn't usually adhere well to faceted snow, sun-crust, or hard snow. Upside down powder (soft snow under a wind-affected surface) generally has a high-risk fracture propagation potential. Identify aspects and elevations with recent avalanche activity. If activity is present only on certain elevations and aspects, then select a route or zone with copious apex routes and safe zones. If avalanche activity is widespread, don’t go.

How to identify terrain hazards:

Concave terrain is usually a chute, couloir, or bowl that commonly gets loaded with more snow due to wind deposits and snow sloughing in from the sides. This is where powerful avalanches can occur due to funneling. Like splitting an atom, avalanches in concave terrain can release drastically more energy.

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Convex features are lower angle slopes that abruptly get steeper; the main face only becomes visible when you ski over the roller. Convex features are risky due to the forces of weight vs. angle with gravity playing a much bigger role. Imagine how fast 500 tons of snow can release underneath you. Even if you trust it, take a diagonal descent to the high side if it presents a double fall line.

Unsupported slopes, prone to avalanches, are frequently hanging over cliffs, foliage, rock reefs, or road—anything that disrupts slope continuity. Unsupported slopes lack the sound structural value found on angle dissipation slopes (where structure begins at the base and continues up).

Terrain traps are places where snow can pile deeply (V-shaped and smaller U-shaped terrain, benches, gullies, and steep-to-flat). Skiers buried deeply generally have poor chances for survival. Great skiers and guides love dissipation slopes for safety and performance and strive to avoid terrain traps.

Select terrain with this 3-Strike Methodology:

Sometimes weather, group dynamics, snow, gear, and all other factors align perfectly (no strikes), but sometimes they don’t. It’s knowing how many strikes you have that dictates what terrain you ski that day.

- No Strikes: Epic conditions/stability. Continue to focus on smart skiing and backcountry protocols.

- Strike 1: Ski accordingly for difficult snow conditions. Keeping snow stability in mind, you can still enjoy the fun concave/convex and unsupported slopes, but you're looking for isolated terrain with surefire safe zones. Maintain visual and/or verbal communications including predetermined hand signals for go/no-go and alerting your partner(s) of hazards. Travel one at a time through terrain traps if no other options are available and make sure you're wearing safety gear and being spotted.

- Strike 2: Access lower angle terrain, or ski in trees that have branches facing uphill, and avoid concave/convex, unsupported slopes, and terrain traps. Maintain the apex (e.g., ridges and hips where snow slides away from you with less power).

- Strike 3: Is either no-go or ski groomers, low angle slopes, or glades with no avalanche hazards above, being mindful of how far and fast avalanches can travel. 

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.

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