State of the Backcountry: Avalanche Season Still in Full Swing

by Kirsten Dobroth | April 23, 2018

On Sunday, April 22, an avalanche in the backcountry near Jackson Hole, Wyoming killed a 24-year-old snowmobiler, who was riding on a steep face (36 to 40 degrees) at the time he was buried. The headline was reminiscent of earlier this month in Colorado, when two people (one, a skier and longtime member of Aspen’s Mountain Search & Rescue team, and the other, a snowmobiler riding in Summit County) perished in unrelated avalanches in different areas of the state. For countless backcountry skiers and snowboarders, springtime is sending season—the time of year when the snow has typically consolidated enough to tackle those big lines they’ve been scoping all season-long—but as three weeks with three fatalities tells us, there’s never really any time of year when you can let your guard down in the backcountry.

Get in The Know

Once ski resorts around the country start to close, it typically sends all the usual suspects to the backcountry—it also sends a lot of the unusual suspects, too. The unfortunate thing is that no matter how hard you ride on the resort, no matter the terrain you tackle in-bounds, once you ski beyond that rope, it’s into uncharted territory. There’s no ski patrol mitigating snowpack dangers on steep faces—or coming to find you if you get hurt. Seasoned backcountry travelers can also make sloppy decisions in the backcountry as the season wanes. As the season slows, so does the regional avalanche report, but there’s still ways to get information on the snow if you’re trying to get some late-season turns. Ski shops for one, are a great resource. Give them a call and ask them about your local backcountry areas—where they’ve been skiing, what the snow’s been like, and what areas they’d recommend avoiding. Backcountry guiding companies are another go-to soundboard for the state of the backcountry, and many offer guided spring skiing on local peaks for skiers and snowboarders who don’t have the experience to head out on their own. Safety equipment—beacon, probe, and shovel—is a must for anyone going on a guided trip or heading out on their own with friends (early reports indicate that none of the Wyoming avalanche victim’s group was equipped with proper safety equipment).

Keep It Cool

It’s been a weird winter for many parts of the country—Coloradans, for example, accustomed to hundreds of inches of snow have had to settle for a paltry percentage of the usual snowpack. Mountainous zones across the country that celebrated huge snowfall seasons are now dealing with warm weather, mountain runoff, and large, wet slab avalanches. Whatever your season was like, keep it cool in the backcountry—there will always be another season, another powder day, and another day of perfect spring corn ready to be harvested. If you haven’t been out in the backcountry for a few weeks, it might not be the best day to hit that 35-degree couloir you’ve been eyeing. Maybe take a day, dig a snowpit, and chat with other backcountry travelers about what they’ve been experiencing. It might be sending season, but a degree of patience (and going through the same decision-making protocols you would on a 10-inch powder day) might just save your life.

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