An Introduction to Exploring the Backcountry

For any avid skier or snowboarder, the backcountry beckons. But it’s a different beast to the resort, with many dangerous aspects which need careful and due attention. Before you plough off into the great unknown, follow these handy pieces of advice...

Every year there are between 500 and 1,500 avalanches in the French Alps. Although you can’t control the conditions, you can take all precautions to minimise the risks. Learning about the fundamentals of avalanche terrain is not only beneficial, it’s absolutely essential before venturing into the backcountry. 

Read the terrain

Learning and evaluating how the terrain works is vital. The steepness of a slope, the altitude, the wind and the snowpack can all affect the topography and riding conditions. Stay alert for any visual weather cues, as the weather can quickly and abruptly switch from safe to dangerous in just a few moments. Keep informed by reading the avalanche reports (available daily from most resort tourism offices) and incorporate this into your daily routine. Not only will this assist you on the days you venture into the backcountry, but it gives you a bigger picture of the snow patterns over the course of the season.

 It's a thrill to explore uncharted territory, but make sure you go prepared. Photo:  Nonac_Digi

It's a thrill to explore uncharted territory, but make sure you go prepared. Photo: Nonac_Digi

Use your head

Overconfidence in the backcountry can kill. Just because you are a strong skier, doesn’t automatically make you an avalanche ‘expert’. It takes more courage to turn back from a route because you think something feels dicey, than to plunge on regardless of the risks. When in the backcountry, ensure you cultivate good riding techniques with your crew. There are simple safety procedures that can easily be followed to create safe habit; only go one at a time down the mountain, leave a sensible sized gap when traversing and don’t cross above your partner. Use your brain and stay sharp to stay safe. 

Carry the correct gear (and know how to use it)

Having the basics of avalanche gear such as beacon, probe and shovel is crucial, but do you know how to use it? You’ll need to practice relentlessly with your backcountry buddies so that if disaster does strike, you go into auto-pilot rescue mode. Shock and panic can freeze even the most able person. Any dithering can quickly result in death when a rider is cemented into the snowpack. 

 From left to right: transceiver, probe and shovel. Image: Pete Orme

From left to right: transceiver, probe and shovel. Image: Pete Orme

Take a course

The best way to learn about backcountry safety is by taking a course. Most will assist on a thorough explanation of the practical aspects above. Added to this, you’ll often have basic medical training too. 
Try this one, running in Chamonix:
Or Henry’s Avalanche Talk (HAT) offer events in the U.K.:

You'll find plenty of practical advice on the Ski Club of Great Britain's safety pages here:

Additionally, here are some great reading resources:
Doug Fesler and Jill A. Fredston: Snow Sense: A Guide To Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard
Martin Volken: Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering
Bruce Tremper: Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

Venturing way off the map is very different to cutting in and out of a pisted slope in resort, so make sure that your trip is fantastic, not fatal but being prepared. 

 Backcountry Beckons. Image: Rowan Bennett

Backcountry Beckons. Image: Rowan Bennett