Powder’s dangerous caress
IT WAS MY FIRST BACKCOUNTRY TOUR and, as luck would have it, it had dumped all night before and was still dumping as we drove out with our guide. A bluff Kiwi with heaps of experience, he issued us with the necessary avalanche kit: transceiver, probes, shovel, then took us off into the trees. That morning we worked two snow-choked gullies, following the guide’s virgin tracks which twisted between trees and crossed and recrossed streams deep under the snow. The two of us who were boarding had to be especially careful to keep our speed and not get bogged in all the snow. Still it came down. It was some of the best conditions we’d ever seen – and among us were skiers who had grown up in the Alps and Rockies. The spread of abilities was wide though and we started to string out more and more. After lunch we returned to the gullies. At one point I fell in a hollow and had to work hard to get back up and rolling again. The others were gone as I regained a trail and picked up speed to dip down across the stream and up the other side. Swooping up the opposite bank, I nosed lightly through the top layer of fresh as I swung about. Suddenly a soft wash of snow came over my boots. I slowed quickly to a halt as the slide continued over my knees. It wasn’t stopping. I swept snow around me as fast as I could as it mounted over my waist. Properly scared now, I could only keep sweeping and hope the slide would stop. It stopped when it reached my chest. Relieved I wasn’t going to be entombed after all, I started to dig. Two other boarders showed up with shovels and soon I was out, unhurt. It was a salutary lesson. Our group of six was too many for one guide, especially given our differing abilities. And, no matter how many guides we might have had, we needed to look out better for each other, to be in a position to help with the gear we all had on our backs, if it was needed. Having the kit is essential – page 43 of this issue’s Great Gear Guide can help there – but if you are heading into the backcountry this winter, take care, guided or not. Learn about snow conditions, follow the guidance of the ski patrol, watch out for each other, don’t get complacent. Be adventurous by all means, but also be safe.