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How to start Backcountry Riding.

9755 Views 80 Replies 13 Participants Last post by  GeeJayBee
Hello peeps.

Will try to make this short. My GF and Friends made me a surprise birthday party (I don't like birthdays) and gave me some backcountry related presents. The biggest one is from GF, it's an avalanche airbag backpack.

We are going to mount baker this January and I already googled if I could sign up for backcountry classes but unfortunately, dates are a little off. So no classes for now.

In the middle of the process, I was a bit confused about how many classes there are, and how diverse backcountry in general (Heli skiing, cat tracks, hiking (that requires split boards)). The thing is I am more focused on my career for now and work, so I am on the budget. My GF knows how much I love snowboarding and wants me to start riding backcountry and introduce her and her friends eventually.

Could you please navigate me and let me know what classes and courses I need to take to be aka "safe and prepared" for backcountry? From what I understand AIARE 1 and AIARE 2 are must have but what about others? I can't afford splitboards for at least 2 years, so, for now, all I can is snowshoeing and leaving resort boundaries.

Also, it seems mount baker has a really good infrastructure when it comes to learning backcountry, here on east coasts we don't have it this developed. Is there another mountain someone can recommend we can plan a trip and corporate backcountry learning with? I heard Tahoe has a good infrastructure as well.

Thank you!
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Man, the avalanche airbag is a nice piece of gear, but it is in no way a mandatory piece of gear. You need a beacon, shovel, probe, and a method (backpack) to carry that gear with you. This is mandatory gear. End of story. If you don't have it, don't go into the backcountry. If you get caught in an avalanche, you are likely dead. If someone else gets caught, and you are in the vicinity, you are worthless unless you have this gear to assist.
Baker has a ton of "slackcountry" which is resort accessed backcountry. It is not controlled for avalanches, and the terrain around there is serious avy terrain. Shuksan Arm is gnarly.
My advice would be to make sure you have the big three pieces of gear. The airbag is a nice extra, I ride with one, so don't think that I am saying the utility of it isn't there. If I have to leave a piece behind, that is the one. Just like my hut trip last week, I left the airbag behind.
Check out Know Before You Go. This is a good introductory site that goes over basic avalanche awareness. There are also free presentations that run through this. They are quite good. If you decide this is something you really want to get into, take an AAIRE level 1 course. After taking the L1 you will have been taught enough to make decisions in the backcountry. The L2 is more about advanced decision making and traveling in complicated terrain. It is not necessary to start with. Most avalanche instructors want you to take a L1 and then spend some time out there getting experience.
It doesn't matter what style you get into. Riding backcountry accessed from the resorts, splitboarding, snowmobiling, heli riding. You are exposed in one way or another. How you approach it differs based on what you are doing. The one thing for sure, an avalanche doesn't care if you are a n00b or the most renowned expert. It is an equal opportunist and will kill you if you give it a chance. I've lost too many friends already to them. Most people who have been around in this game have. It's a sad truth.
Take it seriously, do it right, and you might find yourself doing some of the most rewarding things ever. I love it, but it does come with it's dark side. Learning how to travel in avalanche terrain is key.
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Have any of you gotten any winter survival training or is it just avalanche training?
Good question. Survival training? No. I've learned enough over the years. How to dig a snow cave, bring extra warm layers, that sort of thing. 99% of the situations revolve around injuries or poor timing.

I have taken CPR, wilderness first aid, and did basic life support for my CPR recert last year. That is your biggest issue. If you have a partner, or get caught yourself in an avalanche, there is a good chance you are going to sustain significant injuries. Not too mention, people can just sustain an injury by being out there. Someone can do a knee, sustain a head injury. There is no ski patrol to help you out. You'll have to get out on your own, or get an assist from Search and Rescue. Either way, whatever you can do to stabilize and help bring that person to the next level of care is a benefit to the injured party.

Poor timing usually involved being out after night fall. Head lamps, extra warm layers, knowing where you are, and patience are the biggest things to help in that situation. Just plug along to your destination and take your time, don't panic. It sucks, but those epics are always fun to talk about after the fact at least.
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Yes, avys are one thing...but a relatively minor inbounds injury or equip malfunction can quickly turn in a a epic event in the BC. Years ago, a day or 2 after killz and crew popped my cherry, one of the crew...iirc blew out a knee and lost a ski...was 2-3 mile trudge out in the dark?.
Yeah, that sucked, but we got out.
^^^HAHAHA! OMG that looks terrible! The bs you deal with to do the backcountry thing.

That is a great example. I've also ridden avalanche debris that is complete soft. Usually point release type stuff, or a soft storm slab that broke loose and didn't slide fast and far enough to melt and refreeze. It all depends. If the slide is large enough, it's probably going to be pretty awful to ride through. *See above...
Usually somewhere between $5 and $20 to get a cylinder filled in the US. Dive shops are also generally cheaper. They just need the adapter to fill the cylinder. A phone call should verify that.

As far as the avalanche accident goes. That area where it happened has lots of micro features. It had also been very warm the day before and day of the accident. Definitely above freezing on Saturday. My truck read 38 degrees F at the summit of the pass. Lots of evidence of freeze thaw activity, and also signs of west slide activity on the sunnier slopes. I noted 2-3 point release slides starting in rocks and one tree'd slope. As you would expect. There was also what appeared to be a wet slab release just to the North of the pass, on the other side of the highway from where the accident happened.
Avalanche danger was rated as moderate on all aspects and all elevations for the day.

The biggest problems is, even with this warming and strengthening of the snow pack, the bottom 10-30cm of the snow pack is pretty much all facets. Sugar snow for those who don't know the term. That is just not going away anytime soon, though that warm cycle certainly helped. We have also had a persistent weak layer issue for weeks, though it had not been very reactive. It seems most likely this persistent weak layer is what failed. I would guess the group hit a thin layer in the overlying slab and triggered it. When the avalanche center talks about isolated pockets of concern, this seems to be a classic example. I certainly would not have expected this on the terrain they were traveling on. It is not very steep in that area, and there wasn't much going on to warn you that a slab like that on a slope that is not very sun exposed would go. All of this is just my observations, so don't take this as an official report. Hopefully just a little insight into the day. The provider is well regarded and this is obviously a tragic accident. I also talked to some of the guides who were in the area, but no one at the scene when the accident happened. They knew a tiny bit more, but info was still not solid, so I have nothing to share there. Waiting on the CAIC final report to see what they found. This will be a learning experience for pretty much every avalanche school in the US, if not North America.

Of note, in 2005 there was a person killed in a L2 avy class just outside of Aspen Highlands. I know there have been a few others previous to that. You can find the summary of that one on the CAIC's accident summary page from the 04-05 season.
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Full report on the avalanche here.

Updated the link. Evidently I hopped over to the Trico incedent before I copied the link.
Just read the full report, very scary- even with a full crew digging, it took them 25 minutes to reach the buried victim
It took them a full 50 minutes to remove the skier from the snow.
other issues noted: relief shaded maps not matching reality,
Avy airbags not deployed and not working.
Everyone stepping over the roll to keep eyes on the skier was another huge issue. Of course you want someone with eyes on that person, but one person is more than enough. At worst, it should have been two swept. Once that first skier is down in a "safe" zone, they can do the spotting from below. I have to read through it again, but given the approach, radios for all may have been handy. As you well know.

Airbags, time it took. A lot of small mistakes that added to to a terrible tragedy. Really sucks.
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