How to dig your totally unprepared ass out of an avalanche

Many more skiers have started to pursue backcountry skiing as a way to get virgin powder. But far too few of them have taken an avalanche awareness class, or practiced repeatedly with beacons and probes doing avalanche rescue, or even know how to dig a pit properly to examine the layers in the snowpack and do a sheer test.

The above video was shot in Alaska by a skier dropping down a chute, and is a sobering look, from the skier's perspective, of what happens if you get buried in a slide.

While having the tools to locate and dig someone out, as this guy's friends did, is critical, good avalanche awareness is still the most crucial aspect of being prepared when pursuing untracked lines in the backcountry.

In October alone, according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), there were eight slides in Colorado where people were caught and partially buried, and another close incident on Loveland Pass, where people increasingly pursue backcountry lite skiing, aided by car shuttles up and down the pass. The CAIC gets involved with avalanche information classes, and their website has a calendar listing many of the classes that are offered in Colorado.

In addition to taking a class, practice using your beacon and probe, and carry a shovel. At Arapahoe Basin, at the base of the Lenawee chair, is Bumpy's Beacon Basin. Here, skiers and snowboarders can practice beacon location and probing, thanks to Backcountry Access, who has set up beacon rescue parks at numerous ski areas around the country. BCA also lists beacon rescue parks at Winter Park, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen Highlands, Monarch, Purgatory, Steamboat, and Telluride.

Beacon rescue parks feature a series of buried transmitters, each attached to a metal plate. The ski patrol at the resort will change which location is transmitting every day, and you can practice locating it with your own beacon and then probe for it; when your probe hits the metal plate the buried beacon is wired to, a beep will sound, indicating you have found it.

If you do have a beacon, consider wearing it when skiing at resorts as well, especially if you like to pursue steep lines. Though the ski patrol works hard to do avalanche control on slopes accessed by lifts, there have been incidences where slides have gone off in-area in Colorado, California, Utah, and Wyoming, and caught and killed skiers and riders. A beacon isn't foolproof, but it might help the patrol find you if you are buried.

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Candace Horgan