Backcountry safety measures
MORE backcountry enthusiasts are enticed to venture beyond the boundary lines every year. But do you know what you are doing, and more importantly understand all the risks involved.
Big or even small snowfalls combined with blizzard conditions means cornices and a huge weight of snow. If not careful, this could put you in danger if you do not consider your options and have knowledge.
Alpine News asked Dave Herring from Alpine Access Australia what he thought about conditions in our winter.
Q. WHAT SHOULD BACK COUNTRY SKIERS BE THINKING OF?
A. There is great backcountry touring right through until beyond October and good weather windows are the best. Watch the weather to evaluate whether the snow will be icy, slushy or somewhere in between. Snow can often start off icy after any overnight freeze, especially in spring, then softens to a beautiful ‘corn’ consistency, before starting to freeze again in the late afternoon. That midday period is the time to hit the best slopes and it is advisable to watch for thawing creeks, holes in the snowpack, and bushes/rocks starting to appear.
Q. WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON FAULTS INEXPERIENCED PEOPLE CONTINUE TO DO?
A. People who are new at backcountry make quite a few rookie mistakes: You should be flexible with your plan, and even if you have a limited window for your tour, be prepared to cancel if the weather and conditions are going to compromise your safety, or at least have a plan B.
Think about and plan what you will do if something goes wrong - if there is an injury, if unexpected bad weather comes in. People tend to underestimate the challenges and the consequences.
You need to ease into backcountry touring, go with a guide or other experienced person the first time, don’t go too far, try out your equipment and practise your navigation skills.
Q. IT IS EXCITING TO VENTURE OUT THERE, BUT IS IT FOR EVERYONE?
A. Not at all, a surprising number of people we take out for the first time will never go back. People need to be prepared for the harshness of the conditions as not every day is the beautiful bluebird day. The snow conditions are often variable, and it can be very physically demanding.
Q. WHEN YOU TEACH YOUR COURSES, YOU WOULD SEE PLENTY OF PEOPLE WITH VARYING KNOWLEDGE?
A. Most people who do our avalanche safety training have had a little bit of backcountry experience and have some realistic expectations of what it’s like to go backcountry touring. However, they are universally amazed at how much they DON’T know about safety in the backcountry. With our backcountry skills tours, we try to ensure that people realise what going into the backcountry involves, and tailor the tour to their skill and fitness levels.
Q. WE DO HAVE SOME STEEP TERRAIN IN AUSTRALIA, HOW OFTEN DO YOU SEE IT SLIDE?
A. We don’t see it slide often in Australia, but there are some documented cases of people getting caught in avalanches here. There were a few slides last season in 2017. Apart from particularly steep slopes, our risks here tend to be cornices collapsing due to the effect of sun or rain, or new unbonded snow sliding on an ice layer below from a previous melt freeze.
The risk is increased on slopes over 25 degrees. Our Australian snowpack does tend to become stable a short time after the storm. Spring is a nice stable time for the snowpack, the thing to watch out for is during a particularly warm or rainy period when the snowpack starts to melt and becomes saturated before a ‘wet slide’ occurs. Once again, steeper gradients are where the risk increases.
EXPLORE: Touring in the backcountry.