Become a More Savvy Backcountry Traveler: FOR FREE

Hey everybody,

In my social media and in my work, I’m constantly recommending ways to continue to grow your skillset by hiring a guide like myself. However, I know that’s not always an option for everybody. This blog post is for everybody, especially the folks that are seeking continuous improvement.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that becoming a savvy backcountry traveler is a process that takes years. I was recently introduced to the idea of becoming 1 percent better each day by the extraordinarily savvy Rob Coppolillo. If you get 1 percent better each day and you go out 30 days in a season, you could be 30 percent better by the end of your season! That’s huge!

So how do we do that? The AIARE framework is a great place to start. If you haven’t taken an AIARE 1 — an avalanche course that teaches you decision making in avalanche terrain, how to identify avalanche terrain, and how to have a repeatable process for traveling in and around avalanche terrain — it is truly a valuable use of your time and dollars. Some of the highlights of the course and things you’ll take away are how to track the season’s conditions, how to plan your tour, how to execute your tour and then how to debrief in a meaningful way that will lock in the learning from each tour. In getting back to the free ways to continue your backcountry education, there are lots of scholarships for women and marginalized groups of people to get involved. Just google search AIARE Scholarship and take it from there.

Since I’m an AIARE instructor and educator, this is the framework I use for my backcountry travel. If you have taken a course like this, use the tools provided in your course! That means your bluebook and revisiting the student manual that you received on your program. Taking the time to fill out your bluebook before a tour helps your brain to retain the crucial information available in an avalanche forecast and makes it more available to your use in decision making conversations with your partners. The more you prepare in the pre-season, and pre-tour, the more you’re setting yourself up to make good decisions for yourself and your team. The bluebook will also prompt you to collect all of the relevant data that you’ll want to reference for your tour and throughout the day.

Another way to lock in the learning from each day is to take the time to debrief. This is getting back to being 1 percent better each day. Reflect on the following ideas:

  • Did we make good decisions, or did we get lucky?
  • Where were we most at risk today? Sometimes this is related to the avalanche problem, sometimes this can be other factors like the actual skiing, driving, etc.
  • Did I have everything I needed? Did I have anything that I didn’t need? Think about layers, repair kit, emergency response, etc.
  • Did I see/do something today that I would like to repeat in the future? Did I see/do something that I do NOT want to repeat?
  • Summarize the conditions. What did I see? What would I want to know (be told by an observer) if I were to return to this zone tomorrow?

Many folks will take an AIAIRE 1, get exposure to a bunch of new ideas and then be a little stumped by, “Well now what?”

Here’s the good news: there are MANY excellent resources online for you to use to brush up on your avy-savvy-know-how.

If you’re a video person, Backcountry Access has made it easy to stay up to speed. Dive into topics like avalanche rescue, avalanche avoidance, and more.

If you’re an educator or just looking for the tools that guides use to stay current, have a look at the incredible resource library that the amazing folks at Cascade Mountain Ascents have compiled.

The case study that everybody talks about is the New York Times Pulitzer prize winning story about the Tunnel Creek Avalanche that happened in 2012.

Another incredible case study is the Cherry Bowl Avalanche, compiled by Avalanche Canada. I really like this one because of the way you get the whole picture, all the data, the forecast, the decision making, etc. It’s very comprehensive and well worth the deep dive.

Take the time to really dig into your avalanche center website. In the northwest, we use NWAC. If you read everything on the NWAC site I guarantee you’d come away at least 3 percent better, if not 30. There’s a whole tab dedicated to education. Dive in! There are plenty of opportunities to get social too. Find those under the events tab.

Okay, so what if you want to get into the field? How can you improve outside? Let’s get into it!

You can practice with your beacon at the start of every season. Get some friends together, bury some backpacks and practice with your gear. It’s all too easy to skip this step. To apply a little social pressure to your friends, ask when they last practiced. I don’t know about you, but I usually get pretty rusty on things that I don’t practice regularly. If my life is depending on someone else’s beacon and digging skills, I want them to be current and well rehearsed. You should too!

Having a hard time wrangling people and schedules and things? All good! Go to a beacon park! Alpental has a very accessible beacon park that you can use if you’re in the greater Seattle area. However, you have to wait until the strike zones are sufficiently covered. And this is NOT the place to practice digging – do not dig to strike pads. Google search your go-to ski area and see if they have a beacon park.

Not sure where to go to dip your toes into the backcountry? Choose simple terrain. This is a reference to the ATES tool, or the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (see page 3.) Not sure where to find simple terrain? Get a guidebook! I highly recommend the Beacon Ski Atlas guides for Washington State, wherever you like to ski. While not free, once you have them, you have a readily available resource to help decide where to go.

Seems like a pretty good start. If you have any questions, drop me a comment! Send me a message! Shoot me an email at malloriemtnguide@gmail.com. And if you’re looking for a guide for your avalanche education or for a ski tour, don’t hesitate to reach out!

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