Avalanche professionals have routines that they follow all season, every season. They are creatures of habit. And often, these habits save lives.
Avalanche professionals are students of the environment, studying the weather, snowpack, and terrain of the areas they live and work in. They consistently have an opinion about current conditions. This opinion is tested in the field and adjusted daily. Avalanche professionals are on a path of lifetime learning. Take a few lessons from the playbook of avalanche professionals, and jump start your lifetime of education.
Model your daily routine after theirs:
Check the avalanche forecast every day, even if you’re not going into the backcountry. It’s critical to stay on top of current conditions. It helps to know when a layer has been loaded past the tipping point and avalanches are occurring. Follow the entire season in order to recognize trends in stability, weather patterns and snowfall.
Follow the weather. Weather creates snowpack, which means that following the weather can aid in your understanding of the snowpack. Consistent tracking of the weather allows you to observe trends, for example, specific loading patterns for your region, a dry spell that drives facet development, a big wind event that tips the scales and causes widespread avalanching. Knowing the weather history is knowing the snowpack history.
Track avalanche activity. Where have avalanches occurred? Is there widespread avalanche activity? Avalanches in specific locations? How deep are these avalanches? Tracking avalanche activity over a season allows you to better forecast areas of stronger and weaker snowpack. Knowing what has avalanched previously can give you a sense of areas of greater or lesser concern.
Make a plan before you leave the house. After reading the avalanche forecast, recording the weather for the past 24 hours, and looking to see if there was any recent avalanche activity, decide what your objective for the day might be. Ask yourself the following questions:
Be prepared. Don’t leave the house without making sure you have all of the necessary gear for the day. Carry a beacon, shovel and probe. Make sure your shovel is big enough that it could actually dig your partner out in case of an avalanche. Carry a first aid and repair kit. Take along at least one communication device that has a fully charged battery. Before you begin ski touring, check to see that everyone in your group is well equipped. Do a beacon check and hold a discussion of the plan before you leave the parking lot.
Have an opinion. You might be wrong. You might be right. Either way, you should have an opinion on stability, snow quality, and the day’s plan. Treat this opinion as the day’s hypothesis, to be tested and proven or disproven. You don’t learn about snow and avalanches if you don’t have an opinion.
Adjust your plan if conditions are different than you anticipated. Nothing is set in stone. If you are confused or observing conditions that don’t match your forecast and day’s hypothesis, back off. Choose simpler terrain.
Share the wealth –- report your observations. Report snow and weather observations to the forecast center at the end of the day. It’s important to contribute to the community pool of knowledge.
Review your tour at end of day. Be critical of your decisions. Did you make good ones? Did you get away with something? This reflection improves the next day’s hypothesis and drives learning. Ask the hard questions and don’t be afraid to honestly critique your decisions.
(WildSnow Guest blogger Sarah Carpenter has spent most of her life on skis. She is the co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and an AMGA certified ski guide. She lives in a strawbale house with her husband, Don, in Victor, ID. A year spent building a house convinced Sarah that backcountry skiing, climbing, and working in the outdoors is easier than working in construction.)