The backcountry is not a place to find out your gear is not up to the task or that you’re missing something essential. Often what we experience in the backcountry is quite different to our expectations and it pays to be prepared for anything. Before you travel, make sure every member of your group is well equipped, knows exactly what gear they are expected to have with them and that they know how to use it. This needs to be communicated at the planning stage but checked before leaving.
We know it is not all about avalanche danger in Australia, but beacon, shovel & probe are the basis of any backcountry pack. They are like your seatbelt, you hope you don’t need them but never be caught without them. Besides, you won’t be welcome touring anywhere outside Australia if you don’t have your avi kit. An avalanche beacon needs to be a 3-antenna digital transceiver (the old two antenna and analogue transceivers still work but are inferior). Check your beacon battery life before every tour – and exchange for new batteries at 50% or less. Your shovel should be made from aluminium – plastic ones won’t do the job! You need to be familiar with using this gear – practise putting your probe & shovel together, and be familiar with all the functions of your beacon. Even the most experienced professionals regularly practise beacon searches - in the unfortunate critical moment where you have to save someone’s life, it saves vital minutes if you are dialled in using your gear.
There are lots of different backcountry-specific backpacks in the market – choose one that fits the contour of your back and has an outside compartment for your avi gear. The contents of your pack is different for all but should include the basics:
Clothing should include waterproof outerwear with ventilation zips, a warm puffer jacket, warm beanie or helmet, a spare pair of gloves and goggles. Layering is critical, with layers coming off and on as you work up a sweat going uphill and cool down quickly once stopped. Moisture-wicking base layers are essential. Many backcountry tourers prefer lightweight items for climbing, such as thin gloves & beanie, and sunglasses, swapping back to the warm gear at the top.
Store your skins in a cool dry place, and when you’re out in the backcountry make every effort to keep them dry. Wiping down your skis/board with a microlight cloth before applying the skins is helpful. Make sure they are folded glue to glue – you don’t want any glue on the skin surface.
Checking each other’s equipment is a good idea and when guiding I always have a good look at everyone’s skis/board & bindings, skins etc and watch to see how familiar they are with their own gear. This tells a lot! Experience counts so look and learn from those you respect and don’t be a ‘she’ll be right’ Aussie! The more you tour, the more you will build your perfect equipment setup – all adding up to a better experience in the backcountry.
NEXT WEEK: STEP 4 - VERIFY CONDITIONS
Planning your route, and taking into consideration your fitness, length of the tour, weather, conditions, forecasts and unforeseen challenges, will enable you to get the most out of your trip.
People often find it hard to accept that our experiences in the mountains will be based on the conditions presented to us, not on our expectations or how good a rider we are. You can’t change the conditions – Mother Nature is in charge of that. Last week we discussed Step 1 in the Daily Process – Get the Forecast. You then need to select an objective that suits the conditions that you expect to encounter. In Australia we have a wide variety of potential hazards which demand our respect, including ice, avalanche, wind, visibility and varying snow conditions.
Route planning should take into account first and foremost the overall abilities of the group, terrain, aspect, altitude, distance to be travelled, along with weather factors. How strong has the wind been and from what direction? What precipitation last fell, at what altitude? What impact will the sun have? - There is no point heading to a bullet-proof south aspect early morning after a melt-freeze cycle the day before. Consult a good topographic map (many online versions available these days).
Have a Plan B. If conditions deteriorate unexpectedly between planning and travel, be prepared to postpone or cut short your trip. From experience we can say, it is not worth battling a blizzard or other brutal conditions! Better to save the trip for a more favourable day. Also have a lower risk alternative route you can switch to if things are worse than expected while you are out there.
Human factors and group management have become a focal point of avalanche and backcountry skills training. So who is in your group? A larger group can become difficult to manage. What experience do they have, what training have they done, what equipment do they have, what are their expectations and objectives? Good communication at an early stage is essential. Make sure you are all on the same page!
Be ready to deal with a self-rescue situation if you have an injury or a gear malfunction in your group. For that reason, it is best to travel with at least two others. Calling 000 should only happen when you cannot get back to the trailhead without external assistance. Emergency services will take many hours to get assistance out to a remote backcountry location.
Always let someone who cares know your intentions and let them know when you are back safe. This includes your intended route, number of participants, expected time of return and description of the vehicle you will leave at the trailhead. A responsible friend who might be able to organise assistance rather than relying on emergency services is ideal. Submit an intention form online in NSW with National Parks https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/trip-intention-form and at Mt Hotham and Mt Stirling at their Ski Patrol HQ.
Next week: Step 3 - Check Your Gear
The Daily Process is a structured approach to backcountry travel, stacking the deck in your favour to staying safe out there. We teach this approach in our Avalanche Canada AST1 course.
GET THE FORECAST – STEP 1 IN PREPARATION FOR A BC TOUR
A structured and systematic approach to the backcountry reduces the risk of human error.
It’s a good idea to start watching the avalanche and weather forecast a few days before your trip to get a sense of how conditions are evolving. Those of us living and working in the snow are constantly keeping up with the current conditions and forecasts.
There are currently no qualified avalanche forecasters working in Australia, and therefore no official avalanche forecast. The backcountry user here has to make their own assessment, so it is up to you to find other resources which can help you put together a picture of the current hazards in the Australian backcountry. Resources available in Australia include Mountain Sports Collective (MSC) reports, Bill Barker’s Backcountry Report on the Hotham website and conditions reported on social media sites by other bc users, eg. Australian Backcountry Facebook group. Alpine Access will post relevant information through the season on our social media sites as it comes to hand.
MSC offers a report based on observations from their experienced team, which details snowpack, snow surface and weather conditions. They will also have a portal on their website this season where the public can submit their observations. For weather forecasts, the Bureau of Meterology has detailed alpine forecasts, and check out their MetEye page. Windy.com is also a good weather resource.
It takes time to be able to put all the bits of the puzzle together. Wind, precipitation, temperature, visibility, and snowpack stability are all important considerations when determining conditions and hazards and the difference between a good and a crap day.
If you are unsure about how to apply this gathered information to make good choices, including whether to go or not, where to go and when, you should consider doing an Avalanche Skills Training (AST1) course. The AST1 provides training on how weather affects the snowpack and how to select your route when considering the conditions and forecasts.
Know before you go!