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This article first appeared on Colorado Firstrax, a site that began in 1995 and was run by David Sauer. The website disappeared rather abruptly without any trace. In June, 2006 a copy of much of the site as of 2001 was uncovered at web.archive.org and the avalanche section was recovered and archived here.

How to Travel Safely in Avalanche Terrain - Route Selection
David Sauer, originally for Firstrax

When planning a trip in winter conditions it is best to take a realistic approach setting the goal. Is the day's destination really accessible in a safe manner? It may turn out you can't judge till you are enroute and at a critical point. But then a judgement must be made. Is there a Plan B for fun in case the decision must be NOT to push on?

Look at the map(s). Which flanks collect wind blown snow and which do not? Call the most appropriate avalanche hotline recording for the area. If you can, visit with the ski patrol at a nearby ski area, talk to skiers, or visit mountaineering shops and try to get the local picture. Maybe you'll meet someone who just skied it.

A larger group of strong skiers is nice for safety. Obviously the assistance available if needed, with beepers and shovels, is a plus. But because it is easier to share the load someone could also carry a light rope. A rope could make the digging of a snowpit or the crossing of a trigger zone safer. Route selection does not follow any universal rules. Each situation must be considered individually. However, there is one simple rule. Limit mid-winter skiing to 30 degree slopes or ski tight trees. Save the real steep open snowfields and couloirs till spring conditions make slides predictable.

Often times the ascent route is not the route you plan to ski down. Hopefully, the easiest way up is also the safest way. It may be possible to walk up a wind scoured ridge with your skis on your pack. With no snow to break trail through this route may be easier too.

On the other hand, traveling up through a forest may not be very easy but it is probably safer if the trees are thick enough. Especially if the alternative is to climb out of the bottom of an open bowl where several avalanche paths meet. Ridges, even if covered with snow, can be safer routes provided you aren't slogging through release zones.

Perhaps a long gradual climb takes you up low angle snow and to the top of something sweet. Whatever your group plans it should be clear to all and a safe mode of travel should be discussed and followed. Also, turn on your beacon when you start out from your tent or car. It is so easy to forget or keep putting it off.

Ideally you will not cross any avalanche paths. If you must in order to get to your destination you must consider the danger and the possibility of turning back. This should be a group decision unless you have hired a guide.

If you are traveling in a larger group there'll be a group dynamics factor that must be weighed in. For one thing, people are less likely to speak in objection if they are only one in a larger number of others. (In-other-words, you might get a mass mentality thing going led by a couple of whackos.)

Often times the group splits into two smaller groups that can't agree and neither group has the safety of numbers then. How will the group you are traveling with deal with judgement calls? If you turn back hopefully there is some good skiing to be had with some sort of plan B. If you do decide to cross avalanche terrain here are some guidelines:

  • *Minimalize the crossings of slide paths.
  • Minimalize the time spent in jeopardy.
  • Cross one person at a time and have at least one person at either end of the traverse watching.
  • Listen for settling noises in the snowpack.
  • Do not cross in release or trigger zones if you can avoid it.
  • Consider using a rope with a solid belay anchor when digging a pit, jumping on the trigger, or crossing a narrow release zone.
  • While crossing any dangerous place have a planned escape route to quickly ski along that will swoop you to a sheltered area out of the slide. Many people have skied out of disaster.
  • Flanks of couloirs are safer than centers.
  • Try to predict where fracture lines will run and stay above them.
  • Ski on ribs or small ridgetops as opposed to skiing in gullies.

The descent may be the only part of the day with risk involved if there is any at all. If you are skiing the fall line any falling snow will be going your way too. On the other hand, making big traverses across open slopes is asking for it. Pick a safe way down and stick to it. Avoid places where a slide will have deep deposition because the topography is confining at the bottom.

As when going up, one person should ski down at a time. Those above and those below should watch from safe vantage points that aren't too far away. Don't assume it's safe for you after a couple of people have skied it. Ski under control and don't fall. Choosing a sun exposed face will be more stable than a north face which probably has depth hoar. Unfortunately the best powder is usually on the north faces.

Avoid skiing on top of a wind deposited slab. A snowpit would identify such a wind slab. Finally, remove your poles' wrist straps from your wrists. No article can replace experience. It is all to easy to let the enthusiasm of a group, or exhaustion for that matter, lead you over terrain you shouldn't cover. It is good for all of us to review the concepts now and again. And when you're breaking trail uphill you have time to contemplate these things.

David Sauer

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