Backcountry Blunders

Skin tracks on Echo

In keeping with the theme of this column, I wanted to talk a little bit about backcountry skiing this week. Due to the holiday crowds, season pass blackouts and consistent precipitation, I’ve spent the bulk of my days this season hiking for turns. I am no innovator in this regard. However, in recent years I’ve noticed a clear increase in the number of people leaving the resorts in search of adventure and that perfect white room powder shot that calls from beyond the boundary line.

The allure of better conditions in the backcountry (bc) is a common motivator. The improvements in gear, detailed guides and an industry that’s driven to put skiers on the world’s biggest, snowiest mountains are large factors as well. Though helpful, these factors have motivated even the greenest of greenhorn skiers to slap on some skins and go slogging up the nearest mountain side.

These realities made me wonder what are the biggest risks to bc skiers and who is the most at risk?

In researching these two questions I looked at El Dorado county’s SAR records, the Sierra Avalanche Center’s incident reports, as well as searching local newspapers archives for relevant stories. Moreover, I spoke to several experienced backcountry skiers just to balance out what statistics and reports can’t reveal.

By these means I found three common blunders that have befallen even the most reticent, square-jawed backcountry bad boy. The first and most common is the “bonk” effect. Although a lot of people are earning their turns, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard work out there and no matter what level you’re at taking care of your body has got to be priority numero uno.

Plenty of food and water are a must. Without them you’ll be going for that third lap on Waterhouse – because the conditions were oh so good – and you’ll simply lose the physical ability to continue on. This is called bonking and it’s not a big deal when your car is parked at the bottom of the fall-line. But, do this on a long tour back into Desolation and you’re asking for a pretty miserable time out there.

That leads me to the next biggie: gear failure. Obviously, the functionality of your skis is paramount, but the reality of a failed binding or skin can turn a day of beautiful blower powder into a boot-packing nightmare. In cold weather like we’ve had of late, the glue that adheres the skin to ski is prone to freezing. If this is the case, it’ll help to put the skins inside your jacket to thaw on your next descent or while you’re taking a lunch break. Also, tie wire and duct tape can go a long in rigging-up a broken binding so you can limp it back to the car.

Finally, we come to the most fearsome bc pitfall of all: human triggered avalanches. This is where things get a little irregular. The previously discussed errors usually effect novices and beginners – people unfamiliar with he riggers of bc travel. These are mistakes that one quickly learns to avoid because they ruin your day and you remember it. Yet, avalanches bring us into a whole new realm of blunders because they are in large part released by competent and experienced skiers. What gives?

In trying to understand this pattern I found a similar phenomenon in reports of climbing accidents in Yosemite National Park. According to Park Service records, 60% of the documented climbing incidents between 1970 and 1990 involved victims that had been climbing for three years or more, led at least 5.10, and were in good condition.

This can only be interpreted in one way: the more experience one has in an inherently dangerous sport, the more comfortable one gets with the risks. Activities like climbing and bc skiing have certain systems that mitigate the risks. So as an experienced person becomes more efficient with those systems and their skill in the physical aspects of that sport increase, one soon learns to push the envelope. And, when something goes wrong the amount of exposure assumed exacts a toll.

Of course there are other aspects to bc skiing that draw people towards more and more risky behavior; namely powder. In a maritime range like the Sierra Nevada almost all of our avalanche potential is associated with recent precipitation. For the most part, that’s a good thing. But, the desire and well, let’s face it, the competition for fresh tracks has people pushing the envelope more and more regularly.

I didn’t write this to make generalizations about new comers to bc skiing or vets who have been at it for as long as I’ve been alive. I write this because I know the risks and how easy it is to lose sight of them when you see that line you’ve been waiting to ski and you think: “I’m here, lets do it now.” I write this as a reminder to myself and the reader that it is not a failure to back off when things don’t look right. Moreover, there is no dishonor in sharing mistakes with others so that they won’t repeat actions that were avoidable.

With that, I’ll let you go. Tomorrow we’re on the hunt again for some unmarred snow. I hope you’re doing the same.

1 Comment

  1. Nice article, Nick! (I just found your website).

    I think its true that experience can lead to more risk taking, particularly with snow safety since avalanches tend to be on steeper stuff. However, I also think that some of these statistics have to do with simply the amount of time you spend at these activities. The way I look at it, if there is only a 1% chance of something going wrong and you’re skiing 100 days in a season, then it’s likely that one of them will be bad.


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