Enjoying the mountains in winter in uncontrolled terrain, call it backcountry or freeriding, is becoming increasingly popular. The search for a closer relationship with nature, away from overcrowded and expensive ski resorts, and the desire for an unlimited adventure is bringing skiers, freeriders, snowshoers and traditional winter trekkers more and more into the wilderness.
However, with reward there is also risk. Mountains have an intrinsic degree of peril including avalanche danger, unpredictable weather and changing terrain so approaching the backcountry in winter with an adequate level of awareness is fundamental to having a fun and safe experience.
What I see however, especially here in the Alps, is that more and more people are wandering out of bounds with insufficient skills and improper equipment. Even worse, some very experienced skiers misjudge dangerous conditions putting both themselves and others in very unsafe situations.
So in order to counter some of these risks, here are my 5 golden rules for a safe backcountry adventure.
- Know The Snow
Enroll in a professional avalanche-training program, attend snow-safety camps, and read books on the topic. Be autonomous in correctly evaluating the stability of the snow pack before and during your tour. Repeat your training periodically, at least once every start to the season as part of a continuous learning process. Get training on winter outdoor activities (orienteering, meteorology, physical preparation, equipment). You need to be able to distrust faulty statements such as “it has only snowed a little, so there’s no avalanche danger.”
- Planning Makes Perfect
Prepare rigorously for your trip beforehand, even if it’s not an extreme adventure. The major part of risk is mitigated with sound planning. Check the avalanche bulletins, the local weather forecast, draft your route depending on conditions and evaluate your fitness level. Make a backup plan, check your equipment, and get emergency contact numbers. Talk to local professionals to understand how the snow pack has formed over the season. And of course, hire a mountain guide if you don’t know the area well.
- Safety First
Buy an avalanche safety kit (transceiver, shovel, probe), even if you are only going snowshoeing. But that’s not enough. Be proficient in the use of your tools and train, train, train. Understand how everything in your safety kit works and practice the search procedure regularly. It’s good to simulate a timed self-rescue operation with your friends and then debrief to discuss the results.
- Squad Goals
Unless you go solo out in the wilderness, choose your adventure friends carefully. Make sure they have the right skill level, equipment and required physical training. Ask yourself if they’d be able to get you out of trouble if you were in serious danger. Be skeptical if someone you don’t know wants to join your group at the last minute. And most of all, be careful of group dynamics. Typically, a group takes higher risks than what a person on their own would do. Be determined to evaluate and follow your own personal levels of risk. Courage in the backcountry also means being able to give up or turn around at the right time.
- Help Others Help You
In the unfortunate event than an accident does happen, what should you do? In a life-threatening situation, a search & rescue (SAR) team needs to be engaged immediately. You must be able to make an emergency call, relay your exact location and report the key details of the accident dynamics. This is not always possible, because you might be off-grid or alone and unconscious. This is where innovative technologies such as the wearable safety device PhiPAL can prevent an accident from becoming a tragedy.
Exploring the backcountry is one of the greatest adventures you can have, and properly planning and training for it will ensure many great treks in the future.