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Snow safety requires that we pay attention to conditions in the backcountry right from the start of the season. If you keep track of the avalanche story right from the beginning, you’ll know what underlies the snow pack at midwinter and beyond. Right now, is there rotting snow on north aspects, left over from October? Are you already skiing powder?
Here are the items you should put on your backcountry safety checklist:
Common sense says you treated your beacon with the same care as your skis when you put it away last spring. The batteries should have been removed and the beacon was stored in a cool dry place (batteries don’t store well in hot attics). If that wasn’t the case, remove the old batteries now and recycle them properly (no mercury in landfills or incinerators, please). Buy new batteries and make sure they fit snugly in your beacon. Unless your beacon specifically says that you can use lithium batteries, always use alkaline batteries. Alkaline batteries, which are not rechargeable, lose voltage gradually with use, so you’ll have fair warning before they become useless. Lithium batteries maintain voltage evenly but then die suddenly. Not a good characteristic for an emergency tool. It’s a good idea to start the season with a fresh slate.
Check your beacon’s battery terminals. Make sure they didn’t corrode and that they are clean of rust, dirt or battery leakage. While you’re at it, make sure the spring-loaded side isn’t cracked, broken or bent. It only takes a few seconds to make sure all is well. Next, turn the beacon on. If you’re using a digital beacon (and you should be), it will go through a bootup process and self-check. Each manufacturer and model does this a little differently so take a few minutes to understand what yours is doing.
Once your beacon has booted up and self-checked, it’s in your hand transmitting away. To do a function and range check correctly, you need to understand a little bit about antennas. Most beacons use the longest antenna to transmit the signal. For simplicity, we will make this assumption and not get into the nuances of smart transmitter technology. To perform a function and range test, you need two beacons. If you don’t own two beacons, this is the perfect time to grab your crew of skiing partners and make sure everyone’s gear is functioning properly.
The function check is very simple. Turn one beacon to transmit and the other(s) to receive, and make sure you are getting a signal on the receiving beacon(s). If the receiving beacon has a mark function, make sure it is working properly by marking the transmitting beacon. Next, switch them up and ensure that both beacons (or all beacons) are receiving and transmitting properly.
For the range check, you need either a very large backyard or the local soccer field or park. A variety of factors can affect beacon range – cell phones, power lines, age, battery strength, and so on. Turn off your cell phone and get away from both overhead and buried power lines. To figure out the functional search range, you need to understand orientation. Back in the old days of single-antenna units, orientation was extremely important for range. As beacons are equipped with more and more antennae, orientation is less important, but it still affects your functional search range and can be important to understanding and resolving complex search scenarios. For more in-depth info on how to perform various function checks, checkout BeaconReviews.com.
SHOVEL & PROBE
Check your shovel and probe for rust, cracks, breakage, etc. Make sure the spring in the pop pin of your shovel handle still functions and check that the shovel blade isn’t cracked or starting to fold. Check the cable on your probe and make sure none of the ferrules where the sections join are bent, broken or cracked. Put it all together, take it all apart, do this twice or three times. This check up on gear is super easy, but essential. Spending a few minutes now to make sure it all works is peace of mind if things go wrong this winter.
How many of us practice our beacon skills regularly? C’mon, be honest. If you can’t find time to do this, the only people you are cheating are you and your ski partners. Modern beacons have done their very best the last few years to simplify the search process and allow us to become less diligent about how often and how well we practice. Sometimes you have to remind yourself to do it. Solid skills and an understanding of your personal beacon (and its nuances) are the foundation of efficient searching in complex situations.
There is no reason to start out with a complicated, overlapping, multi-signal drill. Set a transmitting beacon at one end of a field. Move beyond the range of the placed beacon and, starting with a good signal search, follow the signal without ever taking your eyes off your beacon. This is a great way to fully understand the meanings of your beacon’s signals. A live search is no time to learn those signals. The less confusion, the more automatic your search is, the better you will perform under pressure. If this seems too easy or too basic, grab half a dozen paper lunch sacks and set them out with rocks inside, then have your partner “hide” the beacon in a random sack. Time yourself and your partner; each find should take under two minutes. Once you feel like the cobwebs are loose and single search scenarios are automatic, move on to doubles or triples. Learn the nuances of signal overlap and the challenges of signal marking with more than two signals in close proximity. The more you dial in beacon search practice now, the less time you’ll miss out on skiing later – and the faster you’ll be when it really counts.
Early season is also a good time to brush up on your stability tests. Remember those dimensions, procedures, and scoring? What about shear quality, fracture character, and friction? Which tests are appropriate, where and when? What information does each test provide? Below are a few rules of thumb:
ECT: Extended Column Test
CT: Compression Test
PST: Propagation Saw Test (this is only effective in an easy-to-identify weak layer)
ECT: 90cm across slope X 30cm up slope – tap on one end
CT: 30cm X 30cm block – tap on top
PST: 100cm up slope by 30cm across slope – unless weak layer is deeper than 100cm!
1-10 from the wrist
11-20 from the elbow
21-30 from the shoulder
Stop: layer fails, but fails to slide out or drop noticeably
Pop: slab “pops” out into your lap
Drop: slab “drops” vertically on a weak layer, may or may not pop out as well
A great refresher course for this info is Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper. While reading it, brush up on the terrain and weather sections. Also, check out the avalanche education page on Avalanche.org for some cool tutorials as well as education opportunities across the U.S. The ISSW Library is anything and everything you can know about snow. While you’re at the computer, double check all your weather and avalanche links – sometimes as agencies update or modify things, their urls get changed. It’s frustrating on a powder morning to be searching for the snow report from a dead link.
EVALUATE THE SNOWPACK
And as we said at the beginning, pay attention to the snowpack history as the snow begins to accumulate in the chutes and bowls. Season history is one of the most important factors in your decision to ascend or descend any particular slope. The season’s history begins with the first snowfall that sticks. Once this happens, pay attention to the following:
Where is snow accumulating?
Where is the snow sticking around as we move in and out of high pressure?
What is happening to the snow that is sticking around?
Thin snowpacks tend to be weak snowpacks. Early season snow, once buried, may be January’s weak layer. Knowing where the weak snow is now can help you properly manage those areas later in the season. Remember to ask yourself, “How is today’s weather affecting future avalanche conditions?”
You’ve checked your gear, practiced with your beacon a few times, dusted up on your stability tests, and finally the first real storms are arriving. As the mountains grow white and the coverage improves, it’s natural for our thoughts to start turning to powder turns and face shots. Now is the perfect time to remind ourselves that, like it or not, we are human and part of being human is making mistakes. Take a hard look at your own habits and decision-making processes.
Let’s start with heuristics: experienced-based techniques for problem solving, learning and discovery. Heuristics are short cuts in logic that we as humans use all the time. The reason we use them often is that they usually (not always!) work. Think about the last time you drove to your neighborhood grocery store. How much do you remember about the drive? You probably drove there on auto-pilot, observing traffic laws, paying attention to the drivers around you, but you are so familiar with the route from home to the store and back, you probably didn’t even think about where you were going or how you got there. That’s a heuristic. The problem, of course, is that with familiarity we may neglect to look for elements of the route (like traffic) that can change as we drive.
A great way to look at heuristics is to use Ian McCammon’s FACETS acronym (full article can be found here). McCammon looked at common mistakes in avalanche accidents to identify and explain six common heuristic traps we fall into in the mountains. They are as follows:
If the terrain is familiar, we tend to do things we’ve done before, despite changing risk factors. Essentially, what I did the last fifty or one hundred times got me home safe, so it will probably work for me again this time. This is a trap that catches professionals and experienced backcountry users.
A tendency to engage in activities that will get us liked or accepted. Let’s not kid ourselves, we all like to be accepted and liked, but is social acceptance worth risking your life?
Focusing on an objective or goal to the exclusion of important hazard information. Ever had summit fever? One day off this week, with a goal or objective you’ve been planning for a while? The ability to change the plan or turn around when conditions dictate is an important one. Get-home-itis is the reverse of summit fever. Yes, you need to get off the hill before dark. But don’t let that divert your attention from changing snowpack conditions.
Placing decision-making and responsibility on a person perceived to be the most knowledgeable in the group even if the person isn’t a true expert. This one gets the experienced guy who thinks he knows it all and the less experienced guy who thinks his more experienced friend knows it all. Bottom line: never be afraid to voice an opinion or observation with your party while in the mountains. At the same time never be afraid to admit you are in over your head.
If fresh, untracked powder is scarce, it is perceived to have more value and thus be worth the potential risk. Powder fever. Early season, mid-season in a bad year, and no tracks on a high hazard day all lead to a feeling of “We gotta get it now or it might not be there again.” Conversely, a few tracks on a slope may lead you to prematurely let your guard down. Tracks on a slope simply means someone skied it before you — it doesn’t assure slope-wide stability. This one catches the experienced and inexperienced alike, and is possibly the scariest scenario because it is most influential when avalanche danger is high.
People who believe they have good avalanche skills are more likely to take risks in the presence of other people, and conversely, people who feel less skilled take fewer risks. Do we have an innate need to prove we know as much (or more) than someone else? In these situations, we make poor, high-risk decisions to prove our skill level to people we may or may not know. This is a huge trap for the professional and experienced folks out there. We all want to impress our peers.
If this is something we are all subject to, what can we do about it? It’s time for serious introspection. Look for examples of your own heuristic behavior and see what assumptions you arrive at through their use. By knowing which traps you are most susceptible to, you are far more likely to identify and avoid them. But, the trick is to be honest with yourself. You must take a long, hard look in the mirror and confront your demons if you wish to keep them at bay in the mountains.
What other human factors, besides heuristics, catch us asleep at the wheel in the mountains? There are many factors to consider but I think the following ones catch many of us:
The horse to the barn syndrome, or shortcuts in safe travel, can be the end of what was otherwise a great day. As you get tired, you start to take risks you may not otherwise take. Stay mindful when your back is sore and the legs are heavy.
Letting your guard down or not being as acutely aware of your surroundings (sometimes it’s the very subtle clues that keep us safe) seems to fit in with familiarity too.
Problems with perception:
Not seeing the obvious: sometimes the clues are so blatant we just don’t notice.
Seeing but ignoring: you saw it, it just didn’t register, like that subtle whoomph on the up track.
Time lag/belief inertia: by the time it sinks in it’s too late, or sometimes we just don’t get the right info fast enough.
Problems with beliefs:
My attributes will keep me safe: thinking your skill and knowledge will automatically keep you safe. Traveling in avalanche terrain requires constant diligence.
I am always careful in avalanche terrain and have never had a problem. Never forget, there is a first time for everything.
I always check the advisory and trust their judgment. Don’t get me wrong, the forecasters in our avalanche centers are highly skilled and do a phenomenal job keeping us in tune with the big picture and sometimes with specifics, but their information still requires you to use it appropriately. If conditions are not what were forecast or things are not as they seem, it’s time to step back and reevaluate things.
“I understand the risk and I’m prepared to accept the consequences.” I have yet to stand on a single summit, ski a run or experience a moment so intense that it was worth dying for. I am selfish, when I bag an elusive summit, or nail that amazing line in perfect snow: I want to do it again and again – which requires staying alive. Dying in the mountains is the ultimate failure. To my family, the loss would be devastating. While you may think you are ready to be seriously injured or killed in the mountains, remember how your loss may affect your family and friends.
While the snow is piling up and the conditions improving, take a few minutes to evaluate the way you make decisions. What are your red flag tendencies, and what is your attitude towards risk? Knowing the beast within may be the very key to a long, amazing life in the mountains.
Here’s to safe and deep 2018 ski season!
Article by Jake Hutchinson
Jake has spent more than 25 years working as an avalanche professional. He is currently a lead instructor for the American Avalanche Institute, an avalanche dog handler and trainer and an avalanche safety consultant to the resort and rescue communities. Off the snow, Hutchinson is a Certified Instructor and former Head of Instructor and Seminar Development for Gym Jones in Salt Lake City. He is currently involved in private personal training with an emphasis on high level functional fitness for mountain and military athletes.