Get your gear and yourself ready for the Best. Season. Ever.
As the snow starts to accumulate at higher elevations, a spark is lit in the backcountry community—it is time to start preparing for the winter ahead. Just like transitions when touring, a planned process helps dust off the skis and bindings and get one thinking about avalanches, decision-making and winter conditions in the backcountry. Here’s are the areas we suggest adding to your preparation process:
Check Your Gear
Pull out your skis, boots, and poles to check for any cracks, missing screws, or damaged pieces. Make sure the glue on your skins is not glopping up and the tip and tail pieces are in working order. Did you take a fall in your helmet last season or is it more than 5 years old? If so, it’s time to replace it.
The final step in checking gear is inspecting your avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. Start by putting fresh batteries in your beacon, then check to make sure all the lights work and the search and send functions are properly operating. An added step in preparation is to do a range test with your beacon to see if it’s reading off accurate distances. This task is not hard as it may sound—simply pace out 3 meters in a driveway, place a beacon at one end in the search mode, then test your beacon to make sure it reads around 3 meters. Move 1 meter closer and check the reading on your beacon. Do this until you are within 1 meter. The final step is to check your shovel and probe for any cracks, and make sure the locking mechanisms are in working order. Finally, check the cable/wire in your probe to see if it is ripped or fraying in any place.
Getting in physical shape for touring makes the experience far more enjoyable. Backcountry skiing and splitboarding requires a lot of physical strength in more than just your legs, so doing some well-rounded total-body workouts along with cardio is really beneficial to get the most out of the downhill after working hard on the uphill. The better shape you’re in, the more laps you can do!
A significant focus of avalanche education is understanding our own heuristics—the mental shortcuts or patterns that allow us to make decisions and solve problems. These heuristics influence trip plans, decisions made prior to touring and while in the mountains, and how we deal with unexpected situations. Think about the inherent dangers of backcountry touring, dig into how you make decisions, know where your blind spots are—are you motivated by powder or easily succumb to what other people think is right without voicing your opinion? Taking the time to understand your mental processing and decision making leads you to being an aware and reliable backcountry rider and partner.
Refresh Your Skills with Continued Education and Practice
Another major factor of mentally preparing is reviewing avalanche education materials and continuing to learn. This step is so critical in the mental preparation area that it gets its own category. Before the season begins, make sure to review your avalanche education materials, sign up for an Avy Refresher Course, and practice with your rescue gear. Then practice again and again! Revisiting avalanche education materials before the season begins is a great way to both mentally prepare and get stoked for backcountry adventures. Focus on reviewing the following areas: avalanche rescue, trip planning and touring in a group, how to do a proper debrief, weather/snow conditions leading to specific avalanche hazards, tracking the snowpack. If you’ve never taken an avalanche course and plan to recreate in the backcountry this winter, we highly recommend signing up for an AIARE 1. If you don’t feel experienced enough to do that yet, come take our Backcountry 1–3 lessons at Bluebird to get practice with touring equipment and basic backcountry skills.
Start to Track the Conditions
If you’ve taken your AIARE Rec 1 or 2, you know how important it is to understand what’s happened over the entire season in order to track the current avalanche danger. The day your local forecasting center starts writing forecasts for the winter (usually at the beginning to mid-November), start reading them! Sign up for daily forecast emails and make a habit of reading the forecast with your morning coffee. CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) is the forecasting center for all mountain ranges in Colorado, check out their website! Focus on the Avalanche Hazard Rating and the General Summary along with tracking the type of avalanche problem, then dive deeper into the Forecast Discussion and Observations if you’re more experienced. As you start to tour in the early season, make note of what you’re seeing happen with weather changes (crusts forming, fresh snow, rain on snow, etc.). This will assist you in understanding what’s happening on top of and within the snowpack. After all, in general the layers of highest concern lie buried below the surface.
Find Appropriate Partners
One of the most challenging parts of touring is finding backcountry ski/snowboard partners that have similar goals and the necessary education to travel responsibly in and around avalanche terrain. The first step is to get the education yourself—be the best backcountry partner you can—then be honest with what your education and experience levels are when looking for partners. Meeting partners in avalanche education courses is always a great option, or consider checking out our Partner Finder on Bluebird Backcountry Community. Come to Bluebird with someone who you’re interested in touring with as a low-consequence trial day before planning a bigger tour day.
The 6 steps outlined above are a great starting point to prepare for a winter and spring of backcountry touring. The process outlined above is time-tested by avalanche professionals and guides, encompassing the most critical preparation steps in order to keep returning for more powder turns, and winters, in the backcountry!