Berthoud Pass Slide Vid – Scary Stuff

A group of 2 caused this slide back on 12/8/10.

A few thoughts on safe backcountry skiing

Planning begins the night before or in some cases weeks before for bigger lines. I try and look at snow history and as importantly temperature and wind history.  I read the CAIC for incidents in the area and try and formulate a plan for safe travel based on this initial information. From the start of your day in the mountains observations begin. On the drive to the trailhead data need to be assimilated. I’m talking about looking around at the mountains. Scanning for slides on similar aspects to what you plan to ski. I try and note new snow on the trees and whether that snow has been blown off one side. How is the wind today. Do I see plumes coming off the ridges, are there newly formed pillows, and what direction did they form in. Avalanche awareness is more than just digging pits.

On the way up I try and do many hasty hand pits that will give me an idea of whats going on with the snowpack. I tend to not dig full blown pits very often. I find that doing many pits throughout the day in lots of different locations can help overcome the spatial variability that is inevitable in the mountain environment, spatial variability is caused by many things, such as differences in terrain features, whether the area is in the forest or above timberline. Rocky outcrops and stands of trees can create wind blocks. Aspect is another factor to consider. Trying to get a sense of whats going on in the area you intend to ski without putting yourself on the line itself is goal of trying to amass as much info as you can going into it.

Without getting into specifics of this incident, I try and remember that a thin snowpack is a weak snowpack. Small trees are not anchors, they are the heating rods that undermine the snowpack by channeling the heat deeper into the snowpack and precipitating facet development. In general I try to stay conservative until the snowpack has gotten to the 60 or 70″ range. This is generally around the time spring happens.

Remember that there are bold backcountry skiers, old backcountry skiers but few old, bold backcountry skiers. Big lines have their time in Colorado and that tends to be spring time, it’s just the nature of our layercake snowpack

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