Education, experience the ingredients for safe back country travel |

Education, experience the ingredients for safe back country travel

Column by Darin Olde, Tribune staff writer
Dan ThriftAlthough the current conditions look good for skiers and snowboarders, avalanche forecasters say the danger level in the backcountry is very high

With several feet of snow blanketing the region and decorating the landscape with round pillows of fresh, white snow, skiers and snowboarders are beside themselves with eagerness to head outside.

The choices are many. But even the ski resorts are exercising caution to ensure that their customers enjoy the experience with limited risk.

The sound of heavy artillery clearly could be heard Monday through the spindrifts of snow near my home on Kingsbury Grade as Heavenly Ski Resort bombed steep slopes, forcing those that might give way to avalanche or sloughs to release.

Still, some choose to get their kicks by hiking in the backcountry. I know I do. But the timing couldn’t be worse.

The Tahoe area received its first avalanche fatality Sunday, what will likely be the first in a series of sad statistics that depict the end of human life.

A 25-year-old male, allegedly an employee at Mount Rose Ski Resort, was discovered east of the resort’s boundaries in an area known as the “chutes.” Search crews were just about to quit for the night due to worsening weather conditions and avalanche danger when a rescue dog found the victim, according to a report filed on the Web site

While the slide and report details still are sketchy, the message is clear to those who venture into the backcountry: Slide activity is prevalent. Avalanche danger is high on steep slopes, and it will stay that way so long as the storm continues.

A free report posted Friday on the Web site, an atmospheric and snow research company based in Kings Beach, Calif., said that backcountry travel is not recommended during the storm cycle. Avalanche hazard “will continue to increase at the upper elevations as the snowfall intensifies,” the report said.

Most natural avalanches occur within 24 to 48 hours after the new snow falls.

“But that doesn’t mean that it’s perfectly safe the rest of the time,” said Monte Hendricks, a senior patroller with El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol.

Human-triggered avalanche can still occur at other times. It’s up to the backcountry traveler to learn about avalanche hazard in order to make an educated decision about what’s safe and what’s not.

The ski patrol, Hendricks said, uses the “triad” method to assess backcountry risk. It’s based on terrain, snowpack and the weather.

The terrain, in its most basic sense, is where you are, the mountain, its cline and wind exposure. The snowpack E suffice to say it can be infinitely complex, which is why snow hydrology now is a course of study at institutions such as the University of Colorado. I couldn’t even begin to go into the subject here. And the weather — we all know how varied and unpredictable that can be.

The point is that educating yourself to the backcountry environment and gaining experience is the way to proceed if you want to proceed into the backcountry. But even as Hendricks will tell you, sometimes that’s not even enough to prevent the last factor when considering avalanche safety — you.

“The fourth factor is the hardest one — the trigger — that’s us,” Hendricks said. “That brings in the whole realm of decision-making, experience and education and tolerance for risk.”

That’s right, even when you’re trying to be smart, you still could be your own worst enemy. Sometimes common sense is the hardest sense to come by.

What I like to keep in mind is group consensus. If the rest of your party says it’s not safe, don’t do it. Don’t let your pride get in the way. You will live to ski another day and be the wiser, more experienced traveler for it.

Sometimes, it’s relying too much on experience and perhaps a little bit of pride that gets you in trouble.

Lou Dawson, the author of numerous mountaineering and ski mountaineering guidebooks — including the awe-inspiring guide to skiing 52 of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado — once told me that backcountry skiing is one of the few sports where too much experience can get you killed. Sure, it’s lack of education and experience that gets most, but it’s the mountaineer who’s been to the edge, survived and feels he can find his way back from the dangerous road the second, third or hundredth time that ignores nature’s subtle hits. Dawson told me that tidbit shortly after three respected backcountry skiers were killed outside of Carbondale, Colo., several years ago. The ski-mountaineering community was shocked.

When the information is in black and white, and the avalanche forecasters in the region say it ain’t so, don’t go. You can always go to Heavenly and find your way home in the end.

To find your local avalanche forecasting center, go to on the Web, or call your local forest service office to learn about your region’s daily avalanche hotline.

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